THE BOOK OF CROWS
POLYGON £14.99 400PP 9781846971723
In his first novel, Under Fishbone Clouds, Sam Meekings used the experiences of his wife’s family to explore the dislocation and violence of China’s Cultural Revolution. A country with so prodigious a history that it can seemingly absorb any number of catastrophes without visible effect, China possesses a spatial and temporal vastness that forms the basis for a wider exploration of change and fate in Meekings’ second, more ambitious novel.
The eponymous Book of Crows is a hidden, mythical text purportedly outlining every event in human history, past and future. The search for it links a narrative that skips back and forth between the first century B.C., the Middle Ages, and the 1990s. Disappearances, abductions, and vanishings all play a part in the book’s various strands, as if the utmost tenacity is required if you are not to be swallowed up by enormity of China.
In the first narrative, set over 2000 years ago, The Whorehouse of a Thousand Sighs is a run-down brothel in a rural backwater. A prostitute, Jade, who was kidnapped from her village and sold into sexual slavery, nurses an injured soldier charged with finding a book which can predict the future. Jade’s brutal, but ultimately unselfish, response to learning his mission marks the first hint that the Book of Crows will bring nothing but disaster to those who seek it.
In the 1990s, an alcoholic civil servant searches for a missing friend. He suspects his friend has been caught up in a mining disaster. Investigating the Black Light Mining Company, the civil servant discovers they’ve been looking for the Book of Crows. As official obstruction and industrial incompetence conspire to keep the truth from the civil servant, it grows clear his drinking is fuelled by a sense of betrayal. The Revolution’s descent into mercantilism and state-directed capitalist exploitation has disillusioned him.
In the third narrative, set in the thirteenth century, a Franciscan monk is slowly dying in the middle of a desolate Chinese landscape. Tomasso di Lovari has been sent to the Middle Kingdom ostensibly to seek the Emperor’s permission to establish a mission in China. On his deathbed he confesses to a younger colleague that he is in fact a member of a secret order within the Church, dedicated to locating the Book of Crows, which they believe is the missing Fifth Gospel in which Christ narrated all the secrets of the past, present and future. For Lovari, this Fifth Gospel is what will set man free from the tyranny of churches and kings. Like a proto-Calvinist, he believes that life is preordained, and that knowledge of this is the key to salvation. For his younger colleague, orthodox in his outlook and wedded to the hierarchies of Church and state, doubt is the basis of belief. Man must struggle with what he does not know for certain, in order to find the true path to righteousness.
This is the crux of Meekings’ book: if we could know the future, would it be to our benefit or to our distress? Intimately linked to this is another question: to what lengths will decent people go to in order to find out, and is the quest for this knowledge what makes the book malign in the first place?
Meekings’ prose is confident and elegant, with an unusual empathic range that allows him to inhabit characters at great remove from his own experience. Ironically, the book’s weakest section is that which is set in the 1990s, closest to our own time; the feverish, conspiracy thriller elements and the casual slang jar occasionally. This is a minor complaint though. The Book of Crows is a profound novel, and Meekings demonstrates a greater degree of ambition than some of his contemporaries.