By Gillian Polack
There are many ways of using history as a gentle provider of tone and feeling in fiction. Young adult books in particular use history in this way when they don’t want to drown a story in a great deal of data. Deirdre Sullivan gives an excellent example of this technique of bringing the Middle Ages into a Young Adult fantasy in the 2019 novel Perfectly Preventable Deaths.
Given the number of Young Adult fantasy novels that draw upon the Middle Ages, it’s important to address why I chose this one. Firstly, Sullivan writes about a place that has a very conflicted colonialist Middle Ages, for she herself is from Galway and she sets the novel in Ireland. Any castle in a novel hints at military matters, but castles in Ireland in novels when they link to medieval roots are not linking to the local Middle Ages but to the imported Middle Ages. This sits in the background of the story. The castle (a modern one) is imported, the family is imported – the spectre of colonialism is never banished, although it is addressed.
From the outset the hints of the medieval in Perfectly Preventable Deaths present a background that demands answers: do the children who move to the castle because their mother marries its owner have, through their stepfather, any rights in the town to its older lore? This becomes, in fact, a critical source of conflict in the story. It’s a novel about teenage girls who are in danger and it has many currents flowing under the surface.
Elsewhere I talk about how the Middle Ages can be wallpaper history. In this novel it is something quite different. History and folk culture are married together very closely. It’s almost impossible to draw a line between them and to say “This thing is from the Middle Ages, but this other thing is not.” To navigate the novel successfully, the reader has to accept that the Middle Ages and what may have happened in that town at that time has, in the present, become inextricably involved with folk culture and with behaviour.
This is why the Middle Ages used by Sullivan is seldom spelled out and almost never explained. To do either would be to unpick the carefully stitched tapestry that holds the novel together.
The story is really about two girls learning to get older in a strange environment. One, in particular, discovers some extraordinary things about herself and what she had regarded as problematic in herself. She doesn’t unpick matters, piece by piece. She doesn’t see the Middle Ages around her, or any other period of history. To navigate some very dangerous waters, she has to learn to live with the whole of the past and react accurately and instinctively. The hints of the Middle Ages indicate a complete past, a whole history that has to be addressed.
This is a very different use of history in fiction to the novels I’ve examined in this series. The history is there. It’s spelled out verbally from time to time, just so that the importance of the history can never be entirely forgotten. The history of each family is critical to the plot and to character arcs, for example, as is the nature of the castle the twins live in. These are small highlights on the tapestry.
The Middle Ages is not a backdrop. Nor does it present dominant threads in the narrative. It’s part of what holds the story together and gives it a particular dynamic.
The castle itself makes this particularly clear. The family the twins were brought into lived in a castle that had been built by their step-grandfather, in a country where castles had a distinct and worrying history. He “built a castle out of castle.” Borrowing from one building and then from another. The family is the rich family in the village and a bit more than simply rich, and they have a castle… but do not belong.
This is how the history of Ireland is carefully interwoven into the fabric. It also demonstrates how the stitching in the tapestry works. Small elements are brought together to create a complex picture and the best way of understanding the whole picture is to step back and ignore the small elements.
If you don’t look at the whole fabric, the Middle Ages blink out of view. They’re not directly in this novel at all from a cursory view. When you look carefully, however, they’re part of the weave, with many opinions about history and its role in the lives of teens dominant in both warp and weft. It’s not the Middle Ages and yet it is.
What these young adults inherit from different parts of our past are not studied. How they discover a way through it (if there is one) means that small flashes of light and insight and understanding appear at many turns. It’s a different way of viewing the Middle Ages, but it’s an effective one.
Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack