Author – Minette Walters
Published – 2017
Genre – Historical Fiction
I’m a huge Minette Walters fan so The Last Hours was a book I didn’t want to miss out on reading. A departure from her crime novels this is historical fiction where the bulk of the bodycount comes from the Black Death rather than murder (note I said bulk…).
Set in 1348 the book opens as the Black Death is starting its horrific journey across the country. The main location is Develish, an estate in Dorset where the absence of the Lord of the manor forces his wife, the young Lady Anne, to take control in order to protect the serfs who live on their land.
Lady Anne is a progressive woman for her time, having introduced changes (despite her boorish husband) which have seen the health and productivity of their lands improve. She quickly understands the necessity for isolation and brings all two hundred serfs within the moated walls of the estate. This sets up a situation where tempers are sure to fray and conflicts arise.
The death of a young man leads to a small expedition beyond the confines of the estate and this adds more tension to the story. The parts of the book where the action takes place outside the walls are graphic in their depiction of the Black Death and don’t pull any punches. It’s also one of those situations where the reader knows more than the protagonists about their plight (unless you’ve never heard of the Black Death…).
I’ve seen reviews of the book that describe it as being on a broad canvas but I’m not sure I agree. The isolation of the inhabitants from the rest of the outside world, other than a few dramatic encounters, gives the book a claustrophobic atmosphere and although there are several main characters (Lady Anne, her spoilt brat of a daughter Eleanor, Thaddeus Thurkell, a man pilloried for being a bastard) the core story is very much ‘the Black Death came to our door, this is what we did’ rather than deal with the developments beyond the estate.
I think the book has quite a slow pace but I enjoyed the description of the more day-to-day events and the development of the main characters that this allowed. Some of the characters were better developed than others – the priest, for example, felt like quite a caricature, but the demands the new situations put on Thaddeus provided an opportunity for his character to grow through the course of the story.
I’m not sure how realistic the portrayal of Lady Anne is and whether there are any examples of women who took on these leading roles in their estates, but her character is the one that ties all of the story together and she is the one who sets the moral standards in things like equality.
A very enjoyable read but a little disappointing that it obviously goes straight into the sequel so I did feel I’d been left in suspense a little at the end.