The title drew me to this novel immediately. It is from one of my very favourite poets, Dorothy Nimmo, and the whole stanza runs:
So go as the sun goes, wise daughter, go clockwise;
wrong way round the church is another kingdom, the price
of walking alone is a sword-blade slashing the instep.
In 1374, in the still very Moorish south of Spain, a girl is sold into slavery. After various adventures including a shipwreck, two years in a bordel in Cuenca and an encounter with a lamia, she is freed by her new master, a rich Moor whose life she has saved – but on condition that she takes with her the mysterious young slave-girl Malika and returns her to her home which (from what Malika tells them) seems to have been somewhere in the north of Spain or the south of France.
First, though, they make their way back across Andalucia to the village near Cartagena where Maryam grew up, and there she meets an elderly Scottish knight, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, come in search of her late father, who was himself a Scot in exile. He takes her under his wing and they head north together, first in search of Malika’s family, then, she hopes and dreams, to Paris.
My own favourite parts of the book are, first, Maryam’s recollections of her childhood by the Mar Menor, a ‘little sea’ in the south-east of Spain, where her Moorish grandmother, Sebah, taught her to dance and she studied all kinds of arcane subjects with her ‘uncle’ Rabbi Yacoub, while the rest of the time she spent swimming in the sea, all alone.
Secondly, the period they spent in Avignon, when they had left Spain behind, and Maryam found herself for the first time on the run from the powers that be, which in Avignon, then the seat of the Popes, meant the Church, and the Church meant the Inquisition. Going “wrong way round the church” indeed!
There are scenes of sex and violence, but no more so than in most books set in that period. Life was like that. (When wasn’t it?!) But there are also scenes such as those where we meet secret Cathars in the north of Spain and Blanche, the anything-but-orthodox ex-Queen of France, in Avignon, which bring home to us some of the most mysterious and tantalising aspects of the late Middle Ages.
Wrong Way Round the Church is one of those stories you read fast the first time, then later, at home now in this very different world, you read it again and this time you savour it to the full.