THE LEPER'S COMPANIONS

By Julia Blackburn

Pantheon. 197 pp. $22

Reviewed by Leo Carey

If a time machine enabled you to go back to any era, which would you choose and why? For her second novel Julia Blackburn has chosen the Middle Ages, recreating the life of a village on the south coast of England and the adventures of a group of pilgrims who leave the village to visit Jerusalem. Blackburn made her name with two creative nonfiction works -- The Emperor's Last Island, which told the story of Napoleon's imprisonment on St. Helena, and Daisy Bates in the Desert, about an Irish woman who lived with Australian Aborigines for nearly 30 years. In both she went beyond normal historical narrative and tried to imagine her way into the experiences of her subjects. Each, essentially, was a work of history with a historical novel lurking inside it.

The Leper's Companions, by contrast, feels more like a work of history lurking inside a novel. The narrator does not have a time machine exactly, but "one day in the month of September," we are told, "she lost someone she loved. It does not matter who that person was or what sort of love it had been." Longing to escape present miseries, she lets her imagination rove in space and in time till it arrives at a nearby coastal village almost 600 years ago.

As if in a dream, the walls of the houses are "peeled back like curtains," revealing occupants whose lives and thoughts the narrator knows intimately. When we arrive, a man has just discovered a mermaid washed up on the beach. This portent is only the first of a number of calamities to occur in the village: A woman gives birth to a child with a fishlike face; the man who found the mermaid drowns; a shoemaker goes blind, is cured by his wife's prayers, but goes mad and finally dies. In the wake of these and other mishaps, some villagers decide to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They are guided by a mysterious leper who has experienced a miraculous cure, and the narrator, who now becomes a participant in the story as well as an observer, accompanies them. The journey of the pilgrims -- the leper's companions -- forms the second half of the book.

Blackburn attempts to view the medieval world from a medieval perspective and is clearly attracted to the way that fact and superstition, reality and imagination, often appear inseparable in the period. Her dreamlike narrative and poetic style sometimes recall the form of medieval dream-vision writings like Piers Plowman -- with people appearing, vanishing and merging with one another in a way that points up their symbolic significance more than their individual characteristics. Time and again we are confronted with instances of loss and injury providing the narrator with refracted images of her own sorrow. All voices and all emotions merge with the narrator's.

This partially explains the anachronistic feel of many of the book's characters. They often seem like late-20th-century people in costume. They say things like "How do I look?" and "My pleasure." And, for pilgrims, they seem pretty uninterested in the idea of God. This is partly because Blackburn wants to stress the role of the medieval church as a powerful worldly institution (faked relics are being sold hand over fist) but also perhaps indicates a failure fully to inhabit a mindset less secular than our own.

It's not that pilgrimages were entirely sacred affairs (Chaucer's pilgrims are as worldly and profane as any characters in literature), but with so little emphasis on faith the urge to go to Jerusalem seems less like a spiritual quest and more like the narrator's own New Agey urge to break free of the past and find herself through writing. One character, tellingly, doesn't even get to Jerusalem, having found a new life along the way that simply suits her better than life back home.

This said, the description of the pilgrimage is easily the best part of the book. The journey imparts a narrative drive missing from earlier chapters, as we leave the English port of Great Yarmouth for Zierkizee in Holland, then head down across the Alps to Venice, embarking there on a treacherous Mediterranean sea voyage past plague-ridden shores to the port of Jaffa. There is ample opportunity for Blackburn to indulge the passion for detail that has enlivened her nonfiction, whether describing how Dutch voices sound "angry in their strangeness" to English ears, how hostile officials at Jaffa delay the pilgrims and extract various tolls, or how difficult it is to bury people in the hard ground outside Jerusalem's walls. Blackburn's excavations of historical particulars are far more reliably interesting than the excavations of the self that fill so much of the novel, so that it's unfortunately just as you are marveling at the way travelers through icy Alpine passages were led by oxen (who sense where crevasses are) that you lament the nonfiction book that Blackburn might have written.

Leo Carey is on the staff of the New Yorker.