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Cuddy: Winner of the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize

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Here we have all the poetry and intensity of his writing, all the excellence of his historical fiction and it is all mixed together with some literary experimentation that makes you think Myers is really going places with his writing.

When his wife, Eda, meets Francis Rolfe, one of a team of masons engaged in repairing and enhancing Durham Cathedral’s decorative stonework, what occurs will live on in the stone.

There is much more that could be said, but there are plenty of good detailed reviews available already, and I would encourage those who haven't read it to give it a chance. My admiration of Benjamin Myers' work is well known, and I think with Cuddy- because it is extremely experimental in style and approach- he has positioned himself more than ever before to be in the running for a longlist nomination on this year's Booker Prize. Combining prose, poetry, play, diary and real historical events, this audacious tour de force from the author of The Gallows Pole and The Perfect Golden Circle traces the story of St Cuthbert - unofficial patron saint of the North of England - through the centuries and the voices of ordinary people. Cuddy is a book told through four connected novels, plus an interlude, at different key moments throughout the history of Durham Cathedral and its founding as a home for the relics of St Cuthbert.

Cuddy is a shortened form of Cuthbert and refers to St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, a seventh century shepherd boy who became a monk and then prior of Melrose Abbey and finally a hermit on the island of Lindisfarne.The AD1827 section felt a bit weaker to me as I read it and I started to think the book might lose a star.

The story of Saint Cuthbert, ‘the patron saint of Northern England’ is told through the experiences of a tenth century orphan, Ediva, who is travelling with a band of monks on their long journey with Cuddy’s corpse at the time of the Viking raids, the abused wife of a violent Durham stonemason in the fourteenth century, an Oxford historian straight out of an M R James story attending the opening of Cuthbert’s tomb in Durham Cathedral in 1827 (this section I found less convincing than the others and one particular glaring anachronism served to underline that the narrative voice here wasn’t quite believable) and Michael Cuthbert, a labourer working on the cathedral in 2019. Myers explores several topics, many of them quite obvious: the difference between faith and religion, the cost of true devotion, and the interplay between Art and Science. No, he is not that big, but when he enters you it opens you up so that it feels like the world has a tear in its fabric and white light is beaming through, illuminating, seeking a path. It is on the final leg of this journey that Benjamin Myers’s novel opens, with the great cathedral, founded in Cuthbert’s honour in 1093 at what will later be Durham, still nothing but a holy vision of his most fervent disciples.

In some ways, what stood out for me apart from the quality of the writing was the gentle exploration of faith and intimations of the possibility of the divine. The north to me has always appeared a land of coughing chimneys, blotched babies, vile ale, wet wool and cloying clouds, where all is coated with a slick of grime, a skein of grease, and such concepts as aspiration, education and betterment extend to an extra pan-load of dripping of a week's end. After an off-the-books job removing old asbestos, Michael is offered a stint of lifting and carrying at Durham Cathedral, where his personal history and unconscious heritage combine to open his eyes to a world that has previously seemed closed to him. Then after his death his body was taken from Lindisfarne all the way to Durham and the cathedral was built to keep him.

The book about the 19th century Oxford professor who comes to Durham to witness the exhumation of Cuddy was in my opinion the least strong of all, but the last book was so moving and beautiful that I need to give five stars anyway. I enjoyed Myers poetic prose and sometimes I felt the story was so believable that I could have been reading non fiction.I loved what Myers was trying to do here and show how history gets warped and changed by us and our stories over the years. The second part is about the building of the cathedral, where a rather nasty incident takes place – although it’s structured like a classic medieval text with huge blocks of text. There is plenty of wit, intrigue, conflict, atmosphere, character development, and good old storytelling to make this a worthwhile read.

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