A novel about a saint and a historical cathedral might not make you race to the bookshop, but Cuddy by Benjamin Myers turned out to be a lot more riveting that you’d imagine. Meyers novel is a playful medley of forms – poetry, play, diary and prose. In five different parts, he tells the story of Saint Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral and people whose lives were in one way or another touched by it. A moving love letter to Durham and superb storytelling from an author to watch.
For those not in the know, Saint Cuthbert, affectionately known as Cuddy, is the patron saint of Northern England. Cuthbert was born in 634, lived an austere life as a monk and was known for his humility, love of nature and kindness. Upon his death, his corpse, allegedly, did not decompose, one qualifying characteristic for sainthood, and he was declared as Saint Cuthbert a decade later.
Fast forward 100 years to the Vikings’ violent invasions of Britain. As pillaging rages, Saint Cuthbert’s loyal band of followers removes his coffin from its burial place and travels around in search of a safe site. That, it turned out, took a while. Seven years later, Cuthbert was finally re-buried. The place chosen: a beautiful hill surrounded by a snaking river, the very place Durham Cathedral stands today.
This much is history and Myers’ starting point for a novel which, over five chapters, spans 1400 years. The first chapter is part poetry, part quotes from historical sources, a nod to the lack of written material from this time. It works, somehow, and through snippets of information get to know orphan girl Ediva accompanying the band of monks and Saint Cuthbert’s coffin and serving as a cook, healer and clairvoyant.
We skip to 1346. Eda, Durham’s best beer brewer, is married to premier bowman and violent thug Fletcher Bullard. Escaping that marriage is not easy. Thankfully, help arrives in the form of a stonemason working on the cathedral. This chapter is where Myers’ skill as a storyteller really comes to the fore and a wonderful, gripping story ensues.
A short and harrowing interlude set in 1650 follows. A time of war between England and Scotland, during which Durham Cathedral was used as prison for Scottish soldiers kept in gruesome conditions.
The next stop in 1827, tells the story of pompous Oxford Professor Forbes Fawcett-Black’s visit to witness one of the many exhumations of Saint Cuthbert’s corpse (there have been six !). Myers revels in the professor’s arrogance and condescension, everything and everyone north of Oxford is basically worthless. But Fawcett-Black’s superiority and scientific brain will be tested to its limits in this glorious 19th century ghost story inspired chapter.
The final chapter is set in 2019 and is firmly rooted in a bleak near present-day. 19-year-old Michael Cuthbert lives with his ailing mother and works as a temporary labourer on semi-legal construction sites, just scraping by. A job at the cathedral will change his outlook on life and turn around his fortunes.
Cuddy is a love letter to Durham written by an author who grew up in its shadow. Myers perfectly captures the atmosphere of each period in a writing style that echoes the time. He subtly creates connections between each enforcing the message that we’re all part of a chain and takes us on a historical journey which flows seamlessly. I raced through this book, particularly the middle chapters. All I want to do now, is visit Durham Cathedral.
Cuddy by Benjamin Myers is published by Bloomsbury, 438 pages.