Catherine Hokin reviews The Good Death by SD Sykes and finds it “a book to get lost in” and a story for our times.
For anyone who has not met yet Oswald, he is the Lord of Somershill Manor, a position he did not expect to attain, having been born a third son and therefore very much the ‘spare.’ This chapter of Oswald’s life takes us back to his beginnings, explaining who he was and who he has become and perhaps the better man there is still time for him to be.
As with the other four books in the series, this novel can be read as a stand-alone but, unlike the others, I think it will read at its best if you are already familiar with the de Lacy family and their web of relationships.
The story is presented as a double timeline and that structure works well: we meet Oswald in 1349 aged 18 as a novice monk and also in 1370 when he is in charge of the family fortunes and presiding over his mother’s deathbed. Everything else in the story spins out from this room.
The setting Sykes has created for Oswald is a far more closed one than we have encountered him in before. The main storyline takes place in winter. Oswald and his family are hemmed in by the plague swirling through the land: doors are bolted against it, travel is curtailed. It is also, as Oswald’s world retreats to the dimensions of his dying mother’s bedchamber, a claustrophobic one.
This is a medieval society which feels both of its own time and – given the pandemic background against which it was written and will be read – of ours. Its emphasis on family, loss and the fear of death and how death defines relationships make it as much a novel of now as then.
Oswald is tackling his biggest burden in this novel: his relationship with his difficult and controlling mother. There is humour and pathos and frustration in the relationship – even in the midst of her dying his mother remains the prickly character she has always been and she has been announcing her death for so long that there are family members who wish she would finally get on with it. There is also love and there are, eventually, answers.
The question underpinning the book derives from its title: does a ‘good death’ atone for a less than good life? Throughout the medieval period, people were very much aware of the fact that, while death was certain, its hour was not.
The Church taught that the fate of a person’s soul was determined not only by his or her behaviour in life, but also by the manner of his or her dying and a ‘good death’ was one that was achieved ideally at home in bed, surrounded by friends and family, and with all sins acknowledged and forgiven.
In this instance, it is not only Oswald’s mother who needs to find peace on her deathbed but also Oswald, whose life has been shaped by so many family secrets.
The novel is packed with excellent descriptions of medieval life and an awareness of how narrowly proscribed that was for women, irrespective of their social status. It is a book to get lost in rather than rattle through and it feels like the right book to reflect, without being overwhelmed by that, on our newly limited world. I thoroughly recommend it.
SD Sykes has written a couple of features for Historia: Transubstantiation. And why it matters (honestly. It does) about the inspiration for the previous Oswald de Lacy novel, and Did the Venetians invent the package holiday?, which looks at medieval pilgrimages.
Catherine Hokin‘s latest novel is The Secretary, which came out in ebook format on 21 May, 2021. In 1980, Nina Dahlke sets out to discover the secrets of the ruined Tower House in East Berlin. What did her grandmother flee from 40 years before? Historia has published an exclusive extract from Catherine’s book.
Catherine has written a number of Historia features about the background to her books, including:
The ‘hidden’ Nazis of Argentina
Concentration camps and the politics of memory
German reunification: still dividing opinion 30 years on
The Minister for Illusion: Goebbels and the German film industry
An appearance of serenity: the French fashion industry in WWII
Detail from The Death of the Virgin Mary, c1500, Rijksmuseum: Wikimedia