John the Pupil: A Novel, by David Flusfeder, (Harper), 240 pages, release date 3 March, 2015
David Flusfeder’s John the Pupil is one of those books you enter like a world. Within a few sentences, you find yourself living inside of it—and your immediate surroundings become no more than white noise. The thirteenth century, in which it takes place, is an era of terror and knowledge.
The John of the title is a student of Roger Bacon. Along with two of his Franciscan brothers, John has been sent on a pilgrimage to Rome with the goal of delivering a new book by Bacon to the Pope, Clement IV. This journey is traveled on foot for the most part, and in the tradition of their order the Franciscans are expected to preach daily for alms that will provide them with food and, sometimes, housing.
The pace of the book is slow, as is a pilgrimage on foot. John records events on scraps of parchment, labeling the entries with the names of the Saints’ Days on which they were written. One day is much like the next: sore feet, the constant threat of violence, and an inner dialogue that John uses to try to understand the meaning of his journey even as he undertakes it. This pacing is part of what makes the book so all-consuming—it pulls readers into the rhythms of life from seven centuries ago.
Flusfeder’s prose is both beautiful and unadorned, true to the book’s era as is the pace. Wording is simple, but precise. Sparseness, rather than rich detail, is what brings these characters to life.
Give yourself the pleasure of reading this book. Let yourself settle into its rhythms and language and experience a world we left long ago.