Havoc, In Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett – a review
Waking in the night, the coroner went outside to the garden and taking his easement, heard shouts and uproar nearby. Finishing his business, he took his sword and went out to the way in front, where he found Adam and the tippler roused from their beds by the agitation. It was the dark time of the moon and shapes and shadows slipped by like phantoms while men with torches ran here and there, shouting oaths and threats. A shadow loomed over him and Brigge levelled his sword against the belly of a man who brought himself up to a sharp halt.
Bennett’s dystopian novel, preceded by a quotation from Goethe –
Mistrust all in whom the desire to punish is imperative
– opens in Northern England at the beginning of the 1630s. The Puritans are in control of the town and the initial idealism which accompanied their cause has degenerated into factionalism and fanaticism. No one is safe.
I generally avoid novels set in this period because I find it difficult to deal with so much brutality, gore and cruelty. And those elements are, of course, present in Bennett’s novel, although alleviated frequently by a masterful use of language.
Brigge is the town coroner and one of its governors. He is sitting in judgement on an apparently obvious case of infantilism concerning a certain Katherine Shay. But feels he has to interview a witness who the constable seems reluctant to produce. Eventually Brigge sets out to discover the missing witness himself.
At the same time the other governors of the town are involved in a power battle with secret arrests, false and hear-say evidence, and an increasing strangle-hold on the citizens of the town. Catholics and their priests are linked to heretics and fornicators, adulterers and beggars, and all of them are hurried through the inquisitors and towards the scaffold and the hangman.
Meanwhile the general populace, fearful of the unseen terrors which would take them in their beds, are whipped into a lust for revenge.
Bennett draws no easy or clichéd conclusions about our own time or the war on terror. He tells a story.