I started reading this book last summer (August). I finished it last month (March). Iím writing the review this month (April). I tell you all this because it may explain my absence from this website. Itís not as though I followed Charlotte Fairbairn down a rabbit hole and only just emerged from a ďmagical mystery tourĒ in some non-descript English village. Itís that I feel as though I have fallen and only recently have been able to get up.
But first let me tell you about the plot: villagers living a bleak and harsh existence change for the better when a mysterious man, Nathaniel Cadwallader, rides into their lives on his magnificent conker brown stallion, Dungarry. I do not know exactly what color a conker is, but from the imagery in the novel I imagine that Dungarry is the kind of horse who could make a fine living in statuary business as a heroís steadfast mount. Unfortunately for me, I need more earth beneath my feet in a novelís setting. I could not figure out the time or place in which the story takes place. That being said, I do not wish to give the impression that I did not like the book; after all, it swallowed up nearly a year of my time. It was more like an enigmatic houseguest who refused to tell me the date of their departure. Fairbairnís style made me picture an aging granny sitting by the fire, bent forward, hands on knees, telling her young charges the most mystical and metaphor-laden tale in her repertoire.
I will let you be the judge. A pastoral scene is shattered when a young woman is raped while tending her flock. A mysterious man on horseback takes her back to her lean-to, settles her in and rides away. The young woman had a beau, a young man in the village who hoped one day to marry her. The rape produces a child, Donald. The villagers are a weird and wonderful lot with a cacaphony of names that conjure up the Middle Ages Ė Nib Penhaglion, Megan Capity, Myfwany of Morland, and of course the title character Cadwallader. Rumors and unfulfilled ambitions abound, crops fail and a veil of despair shrouds the village. That veil is lifted when Nathaniel Cadwallader rides into view and settles on a hill just outside the village.
Naturally, this inspires even more gossip, but this time the townsfolks are united by their curiosity. Nathaniel does not venture into the village, nor does he speak to anyone. Instead he carves life-defining talismans for the townspeople. He deposits these finely crafted mirrors of the soul with such stealth that not even the recipient is aware of how this object of beauty came into their possession. Yes, he is a carpenter who sees into peopleís hearts and minds and delivers them from their innermost fears; sounds almost Christ-like. The similarity continues when a wild untamed beauty arrives in town. Myfwany of Morland is a temptress who systematically beguiles all the men in the village and then sets her cap for Nathaniel. Myfwany plans an elaborate wedding; if only she had told the intended groom. But wait! Nathaniel does appear upon the appointed day. However, when the townspeople reflect upon this day in their old age, they cannot recall if he was actually at the wedding or merely appeared at the feast hours later.
This tale is a cross between Mark Twainís The Mysterious Stranger, a Russian fairy tale and a biblical allegory. It was not an easy read for me, not because of the language but because of Fairbairnís writing style. I look forward to the movie. I am sure there will be one since it has all the components of a moody Oscar-nominated foreign film. In the meantime I give the print version two stars.