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Cuddy: Winner of the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize

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I loved what Myers was trying to do here and show how history gets warped and changed by us and our stories over the years.

Then after his death his body was taken from Lindisfarne all the way to Durham and the cathedral was built to keep him. And all the while at the centre sits Durham Cathedral and the lives of those who live and work around this place of pilgrimage - their dreams, desires, connections and communities. Combining prose, poetry, play, diary and real historical events, this audacious tour de force from the author of The Gallows Pole and The Perfect Golden Circle traces the story of St Cuthbert - unofficial patron saint of the North of England - through the centuries and the voices of ordinary people. Cuddy is a book told through four connected novels, plus an interlude, at different key moments throughout the history of Durham Cathedral and its founding as a home for the relics of St Cuthbert.

It was less about Cuddy than about the people surrounding his memory and the place embodying it, and it grew increasingly distant from the initial historical pull as it got closer to the present. Michael’s elegiac, impassioned narrative, with its layered connections back to earlier chapters, sets the seal on a novel that has far more to say about who we are as a nation, where we came from and where we are headed than any number of more self-consciously political “state of England” novels. It is on the final leg of this journey that Benjamin Myers’s novel opens, with the great cathedral, founded in Cuthbert’s honour in 1093 at what will later be Durham, still nothing but a holy vision of his most fervent disciples. Cuddy is told (mainly) in four distinct parts, all written in unique styles and telling a different part of the legend and myth of St Cuthbert over more than 1,000 years in the north of England. Forbes Fawcett-Black resembles those unfortunate scholars dreamed up by MR James, whose much verbalised confidence in the scientific pursuit of knowledge is no defence against the darker forces they have dismissed as superstition.

It is not until 2013, when a new café is being constructed, that their mass grave will be discovered. This is a superb novel about St Cuthbert and Durham Cathedral which sweeps through the ages in a variety of different styles. These are some of the most inventive pages, in prose and poetry, in fonts that decrease in size, and in direct quotes from historians who strive to interpret the past. Myers is particularly fascinated by the journey of self-discovery that is the birthright of each person.From these seeds of historical truth and strange mythology, Benjamin Myers spins an unforgettable story of love and loss that breaks free of realism, entering a thrilling space both hilarious and terrifying. Following the Battle of Dunbar three thousand Scotsmen were imprisoned in the Cathedral, 1700 of them died. In some ways, what stood out for me apart from the quality of the writing was the gentle exploration of faith and intimations of the possibility of the divine. This is prose poetry which is the first of several literary forms used through the book (watch out also for stories told through quotes from text books, plays in which a building is a character, a Victorian journal/diary and Myers’ intense prose). The playscript of the interlude and the ornate pastiche of the Victorian ghost story lead us to the rich and resonant prosody of the final section, its twin emphasis on sense of place and societal disjuncture keenly familiar from Myers’s previous work in novels including The Gallows Pole and The Perfect Golden Circle.

He is an award-winning author and journalist whose recent novel Cuddy (2023) won the Goldsmiths Prize. This book is a challenge no doubt, and demands perseverance from its readers, not all of whom will want to take on the trouble of that task.The style of each book differs greatly (the first book is written in verse, there's an interlude written as a script for a play, the third book is a diary, the fourth is in lyrical prose), but somehow the novel remains cohesive, probably because the presence of St. Myers weaves recurring symbols and images throughout his stories and the overall effect is of the unifying influence of myth, story and shared experiences across the ages, and in particular, the long, beneficent influence of the the Saxon saint at the centre of this remarkable story. The increasingly serious turn taken by this chapter had the effect of removing my doubts, as well as shaking the professor’s loudly proclaimed contempt for the ineffable. The symbiosis of poetry and story, of knowledge and deep love, marks out Cuddy as a singular and significant achievement. I admit I was a little daunted by the style when I first started but then Gallows Pole unnerved me to begin with.

From that point began a series of buildings which would eventually become one of the most spectacular cathedrals in Europe. And all the while at the centre sits Durham Cathedral and the lives of those who live and work around this place of pilgrimage – their dreams, desires, connections and communities. Several more sections follow in which we follow a young girl with her visions of a cathedral and her visitations from Cuthbert (AD995); we live in the shadow of that cathedral (Durham cathedral as we know it) with a woman (AD1346) whose husband is a famous archer but is also abusive and she falls for another, more gentle, man; we read the journal of an Oxford antiquarian (AD1827) as he travels to the north of England (which he despises) to witness the disinterment of a body in the cathedral; and we follow Michael Cuthbert in AD2019 as he cares for his mother and scratches a living as a labourer, eventually finding more stable work at the cathedral.

Cuddy is a novel that combines poetry, prose, diary entries and real historical accounts to relate the story of St. Don’t be put off by the slightly difficult beginning - this book gets better and better as it progresses.

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