Once in a while, a book comes along that surprises you. I picked The Crowfield Curse up on a whim, being attracted to its stark cover art and intriguing title, and it turns out to have been the best book-related choice I’ve made in months. A rich, unsettling atmosphere, imaginative use of old folktales and legends, a sweet, likeable protagonist, a fascinating central conceit — this book has it all.
After the death of his family in a fire, fourteen year old William Paynel goes to live at Crowfield Abbey. It’s a hard life there, but Will knows that he’s lucky to have daily meals and shelter, especially during the middle of winter in the year 1347. Surrounded by monks both strict and kindly, including hunchbacked Brother Snail and simple-minded Brother Peter, Will is more or less content with his lot in life.
But changes are on the horizon. The story begins when Will rescues a hob — that is, a strange fay-creature – from an iron trap and takes it back to Crowfield Abbey for healing, though he’s careful to keep it a secret from the monks. He has heard several spooky stories about the dangers of the woods and knows that the monks would not look kindly on the presence of a fay in their domain, but the hob seems a benevolent creature who informs Will that he has the Sight.
Mysteries pile up upon mysteries. Two guests, Jacobus Bone and his manservant Shadlok, have come to stay at the Abbey. It’s a strange place to visit, but it soon becomes clear that they have a purpose in visiting the rundown old abbey in the middle of winter. They are looking for something, the secret of which has been guarded by the monks of Crowfield Abbey for generations, and Will might just be the key in finding it. It would be wrong to give away the central secret of the book, but rest assured — it is suitably mysterious and thought-provoking. Something is buried under the snow, and once you learn what it is, you’ll be as intrigued as Will in the attempt to uncover it. (Or you could just read one of the other reviews, which readily give away the “curse” of the book’s title).
Pat Walsh is marvelous at capturing the experience of life in the fourteenth century. She’s clearly done painstaking research to ensure that everything is as accurate as possible, and the book includes a glossary and day’s timetable at the back. The layout of the abbey with its church, chapter house, graveyard, gardens and fishponds feels like a real place, and its careful routine and strict rules are contrasted beautifully with the wild forests replete with spirits that lie just beyond its walls. The chill of a medieval winter is palpable (you may need to add extra layers of clothing whilst you read) and Walsh doesn’t overlook the grimmer aspects of Will’s life, where food is scarce, people are greedy or cruel out of necessity, and graves are dug before their recipients are even dead (otherwise the frozen ground would make it impossible).
But though this is a realistic, gritty portrayal of the past, filled with superstition and hardships, Walsh is careful to add moments of kindness and beauty too. Will is struck by the beauty of musical instruments, vellum documents and elaborate stone carvings. Likewise, there is a fascinating melding of Christian mysticism and pagan folklore, with Will forging friendships on both sides of the equation. The answer to the mystery lies both with the monks and in the unseen world of spirits that dwell in the forest — between the two of them, Will finds what he seeks.
From the haunted hollow in the forest, where no birds sing and the devil is said to walk, to the daily routine of drudgery and chores at the abbey, from the enigmatic Dame Alys with her white crow, to Jacobus Bone with his masked face, Walsh has crafted a fascinating book populated with plenty of vivid characters and interesting ideas. Best of all, she’s left plenty of room for a sequel, The Crowfield Demon, which I can’t wait to read.