Book Review: The Book of Days by Francesca Kay

The year is 1546 and in an English village a dying man has commissioned the building of a chantry chapel where prayers will be said for his eternal soul. The building of the chapel – and the inevitable disruption to the existing church – dominates the lives of the village and of his household. As does the long period of his dying, leaving his wife – the narrator of this novel – in a type of limbo.

Grieving for the loss of her child, and overshadowed by the spectre of her husband’s first wife, she is forced to ponder what fate will hold for her when she becomes a widow.

All of this takes place at a time when the old certainties are fading. The Reformation is in full force: the old religion has been banned but its rites and rituals have not disappeared. There is a climate of fear but also of change and emboldenment. Will the narrator – symbolically unnamed for much of the novel, and painfully aware of her own lack of agency – finally be able to step out from the shadows?

This is a beautifully written and multi-faceted novel. The structure of the story is built around the traditional book of days, combining the church calendar with a personal journal. But it is also shaped around the physical presence of the church: the building, its symbols, and the graves of generations of people who have been buried there. This is a world in which religion is part of the fabric of everyday life.

Cold, hard stone permeates the story. This is the substance of the church and of the tombs of the dead. It carries traces of the past, with “ghost of an arch and a window blocked up long ago”. But for Simm, the master mason, “stone is a living thing”, to be coaxed into the shapes and forms of nature.

In one sense the people of this world are – like the stone – both living and dead. Life and death are intertwined. The dead continue to affect the living, and the living are invited to anticipate their own deaths, even to the extent of having their likenesses taken for their eventual tombs.

It is left to individuals to find joy in the moment, in the consolations of nature and of everyday life. As the narrator writes her book of days she records the changing of the seasons and the minutiae of the everyday world. Every saint’s day has its rituals, bound up with ancient custom, and she notes that “we must all of us find our truth in plain, familiar things”.

But change is inevitable, the permanence of stone an illusion. Life is a matter of adapting and accepting. As we are told, after an unusually tumultuous episode, “the times are on the march and it behoves us to listen to the drumbeat”. A short but enjoyable and thought-provoking novel.

The Book of Days, Francesca Kay, Swift, February 2024, 9781800753495

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