Award-winning British author Benjamin Myers was born in the northern English city of Durham in 1976. This is a fact to keep in mind when coming to his latest novel Cuddy, which revolves around the life and death – and everything that came after – of St Cuthbert (including the construction of one of the world’s great cathedrals in Durham). Known colloquially as Cuddy, St Cuthbert lived between 634 and 687 CE and is seen by many as the patron saint of the north of England. The book ranges across hundreds of years of British history but never loses sight of the individuals caught up in its wheels.
Cuddy is told in five distinct sections, each set in a different period and written in a different style. The first tells the life of St Cuthbert and the search for a final resting place for his remains four hundred years after his death. St Cuthbert lived mainly on the island of Lindisfarne and died as a hermit on a smaller island nearby. Three hundred years later, when Vikings raided that part of the coast, his remains were moved and a new resting place was sought, safe from the rampaging invaders. This section is a deft combination of the academic and poetic. Myers weaves in quotes from histories and other works about the life of St Cuthbert in the seventh century with the musings and visions of a woman three hundred years later who accompanies the group of monks charged with finding a place safe for the box containing St Cuthbert’s remains:
The mission of the men is holy,
their cargo precious.
Each brother is made of shadows
into which the light of Cuddy shines.
So they shoulder the bones of a man
made great through miracles
and protect those parts the crows
would otherwise peck as carrion.
The group is led by her visions to the place that will become modern-day Durham, and over the next three hundred years a cathedral will rise on the hill they choose as Cuddy’s resting place. The second tale, set in 1346, revolves around a woman, married to a bowman, who is attracted to one of the masons working on the final embellishments of the cathedral, but also considers the role of the cathedral as sanctuary:
… the words Sanctuary! Sanctuary! are yelled by those who seek it and often with the hue-and-cry mob baying at their tail … Upon doing so, the said door is flung open by the monk that sits in the chamber above it for exactly the purpose of pulling the seeker in and promptly shutting it behind them. Sanctuary is granted and the Galilee bell rung to mark the moment, and the seeker then made to wear a robe that bears the yellow sign of our St Cuthbert sewn into one shoulder to show the world the generosity of our saint who offers his home without judgement.
Following this is a short piece written as a drama and set in 1650, a time of civil war when the cathedral was used as a prison where Scottish soldiers were locked in to die from illness and starvation. In this section, the cathedral has its own voice. The narrative then moves to 1827 and one of the many times that people thought to remove and examine St Cuthbert’s remains. This tale, told in diary form by an academic, becomes a kind of Victorian ghost story as he begins to have visions that are possibly connected to events and people from a much earlier time:
I felt something, a sense of otherness and the fading away of whispered voices – several of them, all male, solemn in their delivery.
The final part, set in 2019, is a coming-of-age story revolving around Michael, a young local who finds himself employed to run odd jobs for the team charged with restoring the stonework of the cathedral, again drawing connections with the masons of an earlier time:
‘So the team are having to remove every bit piece by piece, then take them down to the workshop for repair or, if they’re beyond it, to make new stones carved to fit perfectly in place. They call this blaxter sandstone. It’s like working on the world’s biggest puzzle – a jigsaw as high as the sky.’
Cuddy is an extended love letter to the city of Durham and in particular its cathedral and the personality that inspired its creation. Here is Michael’s modern-day reflection on the building:
The vast edifice before him is enrapturing … Seen close-up rather than viewed as a distant silhouette or an apparition hastily glimpsed through the mist, it appears almost incomprehensible, a stunning visual and engineering feat made all the more impressive by its ability to dominate and dwarf all its close surroundings. Perhaps, thinks Michael, that was the intention of its creators … to give the impression of the cathedral having been born from the hill on which it stands, something expelled from stone like an overzealous fountain cast in rock, a ziggurat pushed and then stretched upwards towards the sun, a mountain squeezed from the bowels of the earth to be carved and sculpted in a way as to evoke awe.
As with his previous book The Perfect Golden Circle, Myers is also interested in the idea of Britishness. His characters epitomise different aspects of the national character, whether it is wistful longing and a connection with landscape, bullish aggression, academic arrogance, a commitment to service or a deep respect for an ancient past. At the same time he considers the connection between those characters and the landscapes and cities they inhabit.
Cuddy is essentially a book of linked short stories. Through them, Myers brings both the city of Durham and its inhabitants to life. He deftly uses recurring motifs, and the ever-present spirit of the saint at the heart of the story to create a continuum that carries the reader smoothly from the opening pages through to the final instalment. It is an enlightening, spiritual and affecting tale, one that shines a light on not only British history but the British character. Cuddy is another triumph from Myers.
This review first appeared on Newtown Review of Books.