The Goldsmiths Prize awards fiction that “breaks the mould”. To achieve true inventiveness, a great novel must also craft its own form. The winner of this year’s prize, which I judged alongside Tom Lee of Goldsmiths University and the novelists Maddie Mortimer and Helen Oyeyemi, does just that – four times over.
Cuddy is the ninth novel from Benjamin Myers, who was born in Durham and now lives in West Yorkshire. Its central character is St Cuthbert, the unofficial patron saint of the north of England. St Cuthbert was born in Northumbria, became a monk, rose to become abbot of Lindisfarne, and then lived for many years as a hermit.
Cuddy is his nickname: there is real affection here, from the off. The book is an ambitious historic odyssey that spans 14 centuries. It begins in the seventh, then moves to the tenth as monks carry the saint’s remains, searching for a resting place that will be safe from Viking invaders. They settle on a hilltop that will become Durham. The novel continues into the 14th century, with an impassioned love affair between Eda, whose abusive husband is away at war, and Francis, who is part of a team of masons working on Durham Cathedral’s stonework. In the third part, a 19th-century Oxford professor – who, comically, despises the north of England – travels to witness the opening of Cuthbert’s tomb. In the fourth and final section we are in austerity Britain, and Michael Cuthbert, a young day-labourer who is caring for his terminally ill mother, takes a job assisting the experts who are repairing a cathedral balustrade. He is a Durham local, but up until now never thought the cathedral was a place for people like him.
These four stories are tonally different, and so they require their own modes. Myers, who is also the author of short stories, non-fiction and poetry, flits easily between verse, playscript and transcendental prose. But throughout, images and sayings recur: these are not isolated events, Myers insists, but part of the same whole. The craft of stonemasonry is given as much attention as the power of prayer. Cuddy asks us to think not just about where we come from, but about how our belief systems arise, how both beauty and injustice are passed down through generations, and how knowledge of a spiritual past might help us better come to terms with an unknown future.
Cuddy upends our preconceptions of what the “historical novel” might be. By joining together numerous stories and voices across many centuries, Myers has turned a tale of the past into a truly modern novel. And for such an expansive text, Cuddy is remarkably intimate. I hope many more readers are charmed by this contemporary story of an ancient saint.
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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury