I have not read historical fiction in years, even though it used to be my favorite genre. I nearly passed this book up on the library shelf, but I’d actually read a positive review of it when it came out and it caught my eye as it’s from the medieval period and looks at the Cathars, a topic in which I’ve long had an interest.
Craig looks at the Good Men’s impact on the village of Montaillou through the lifespan of one man, the rector of Montaillou, and three generations of women he loved. The novel hits familiar late medieval complaints–a corrupt Church at the upper levels, a corrupt Dominican order, corrupt clergy at the local level, and echoes the truths of small rural towns everywhere. Its story about women and the role their bodies play in their lives, whether it’s their hair, their squinty eye, or their pearly white skin, is sad in an era where women’s bodies are all too often still the defining factor in their lives. A nice surprise is the fairly sympathetic portrayal of the popes, who most often, in this tale, act to moderate the fervor and methods of the Inquisition.
Craig was inspired by the Inquisition records of one woman, Grazida, and she builds the whole story around her. The characters are engaging, the story is complex enough to hold one’s attention for its nearly 400 pages. The landscape of Montaillou becomes a haunting character in the story.
One odd turn of plot is when Grazida begins composing poetry in her mind, which goes nowhere in terms of the plot or Grazida’s character and is frustrating given the lack of any historical information to support it. It seems, instead, the wishful thinking of a student of history and literature and gender studies.
Overall, however, the book was a successful return to historical fiction for me and affirms my choice to work serendipitously systematicallythrough the library shelves.