Julia Blackburn published her first book, "The Emperor's Last Island," a brilliantly imagined account of Napoleon's six-year exile on St. Helena, seven years ago. She followed it with "Daisy Bates in the Desert," an equally vivid historical portrait, this time of an Irish woman who spent 30 years among the Aborigines in Australia. Blackburn's new novel follows a clear trajectory in the author's intellectual development: from imagined biographies to what I suspect are highly autobiographical imaginings.
In "The Leper's Companion," a nameless narrator suffers a nameless loss so strong that it shocks her out of time. Transcending rather than traveling back through the centuries, she finds herself in an English fishing village circa 1410. There she moves, a vaguely ghostlike figure, among inhabitants who are themselves subject to cruel griefs. A fisherman finds a mermaid washed ashore; when the tides wash her back to sea he follows, never to return. The fisherman's daughter gives birth to a fish-headed baby. A blind shoemaker regains his sight and loses his sanity. Many of the characters join a village priest and the wandering leper of the book's title on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; only two return.
While the plot may recall other allegorical crossings (such as the one that the Knight, the Squire and the circus family undertake in Ingmar Bergman's film "The Seventh Seal"), the power of Blackburn's book lies in her language and in her ability to conjure images that are at once spooky and heart-rending. In one near-Borgesian instance, a hungry woman eats a map and is then consumed by wanderlust. Gravestones are "pockmarked by lichen and weather," and nipples are "red as sea anemones." Such writing would seem mannered in less practiced hands, but Blackburn achieves an honest lyricism. You allow her the metaphor of trees "locked in embrace" because she is capable of taking the image to another level: The priest is watching, and "the passion of the trees unnerve[s] him."
The book's strengths, however, may also be its undoing. We are borne along on a stream of clean, lovely prose, but where are we going, and why? To Jerusalem, yes, but the journey and its meaning remain vague. At points, the novel is like the diary of a stranger's dreams: beautiful in patches but ultimately annoying. Blackburn shores up this ethereality with pungent descriptions of disease and rot, but they often seem calculated; you suspect she's not so much describing conditions during the Middle Ages as struggling to anchor the novel's episodes in solid ground.
Most of the time, though, her graceful rhythms and her sense of humor sustain us even when the loping, amorphous narrative doesn't. When the priest loses one of his companions in a foreign land, he practices "the words he had learned from the book of travels" -- he tells everyone who will listen, "I want a woman," and a little boy leads him to a bordello. Elsewhere, a character "lick[s] the words" of a book she holds in her lap, "in case they might taste of anything she knew." Blackburn's words, eminently edible, taste of the strange nourishment the best novels provide.