Canongate scoops Meek's Black Death tale

Canongate scoops Meek's Black Death tale

Canongate has acquired the “epic” new novel, To Calais, In Ordinary Time, from Booker-longlisted author James Meek, which is billed as a "mash up of Chaucer and Cormac McCarthy".

Publishing Director Francis Bickmore acquired world rights to the historical novel about the Black Death excluding the USA from Natasha Fairweather at Rogers, Coleridge and White.

To Calais, In Ordinary Time will be Canongate’s lead fiction for autumn 2019, accompanied by a new edition of Meek’s The People’s Act of Love in Canongate’s Canons series of classics.

The novel is set in England, 1348, the year that the Black Death arrives. It follows a gentlewoman fleeing an odious arranged marriage, a Scottish clerk returning home to Avignon and a handsome young ploughman pursued by a pair of enigmatic friends join a company of veteran archers travelling from the Cotswolds to France. As the journey unfolds, overshadowed by the archers’ past misdeeds and clerical warnings of the imminent end of the world, the wayfarers begin to confront the nature of their loves and desires. Coming in their direction from across the channel is the plague that will wipe out half of the population of Northern Europe.

Six years in the writing, the book is about love, class, faith, loss, gender, desire and Europe – set against one of the biggest cataclysms of human history, the publisher said.

“A tremendous feat of language and empathy, it summons a medieval world that is at once uncannily plausible, utterly alien and eerily reflective of our own. Exquisite, dramatic, funny and savage, To Calais, In Ordinary Time is a unique and unforgettable book,” Canongate said.

Meek was born in London in 1962 and grew up in Dundee. His novel The People’s Act of Love (Canongate) won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, the SAC Book of the Year Award, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005 and has been published in more than 30 countries. The Heart Broke In was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award and We Are Now Beginning our Descent (both published by Canongate) won the Prince Maurice Prize. He is the author of two other novels, a book of non-fiction and two collections of short stories. 

Bickmore said: “James Meek is a writer of huge significance, and this is his biggest risk yet. Linguistically and imaginatively it has no precedent. To Calais, In Ordinary Time unfurls against the backdrop of one of the most cataclysmic period in history, the Black Death’s passage across Europe. Everything is at stake and we can almost hear each of Meek’s characters drawing breath. And excitingly, though set 670 years ago it is a book that is very much about what it means to live in modern times."

He added: "Like The People’s Act of Love before it, I suspect this novel will earn its right to the term masterpiece.”

Fairweather said: “What’s so thrilling about this dazzlingly original story of identity, gender and love in the 14th century is that it feels so modern – like a mash up between Chaucer and Cormac McCarthy – and there’s a glorious, transgressive love story at the heart of it.

"I have always felt privileged to represent James, and I’m happy to see his long and successful collaboration with Canongate move into this exciting new phase.”

Meek said: “I went far to bring this one back. I’m really glad to be working with Canongate to take it to the readers.”