Historical fiction frequently leads the reader into dark places. Chris Womersley’s haunting novel City of Crows will take you into a nightmare labyrinth where superstition rules and where it seems the Devil calls the tune. The novel recounts the journey of the young widow Charlotte Picot from the south of France to Paris in 1673. There’s murder, child sacrifice, witchcraft, plague, poison, black magic, abortion, executions, torture and Tarot (with pictures). And crows and rats, which provide the occasion for the use of the wonderful verb ‘‘to skitter’’.
In fact the verbs are one of the great pleasures of City of Crows. They enact the image and meaning of the title as they skip, dart, hop, slide, slink, squirm, scurry, squeak and twitter. Wonderful old verbs to weave the texture of this ‘‘product of the author’s imagination’’, with its various acknowledged borrowings from the accounts of history.
It is Paris that is the ‘‘city of crows’’, as bleak a title as a city could have, invoking as it does the grim disgust of carrion, as well as the bird’s uncanny ability to foretell the future.
The crows of Paris are ‘‘inhabited by the souls of dead witches’’. Images of the birds are literal but also metaphoric, signifying evil and the devil himself. Yet privately for Charlotte’s travelling companion, the malevolent Adam Lesage, Paris is in fact ‘‘a city of dreams’’, ‘‘the centre of the world’’. It trembles ‘‘on the far horizon of his imagination’’.
When Charlotte glimpses Paris for the first time, in the far distance, it is ‘‘a grey smudge on the green horizon’’. Later, in the glistening moonlight, the reality of the material city squats on the skyline. It gradually resolves into spires and smoke and ‘‘glints of glass’’.
But Charlotte sees ‘‘black spots’’ drifting in the grey sky — crows. At the sight of them she touches her magical black book, her security. A crow launches itself from a tree and disappears ‘‘into the arboreal murk, leaving one of its black feathers to flutter to the ground’’. Portents and superstitions are all around.
Although Charlotte begins as an apparently innocent woman, she learns to practise the dark arts, and her character, in a devastating twist, gradually transforms.
Yet, even at her most horrifying, she never quite loses the reader’s sympathy.
Throughout, the brooding presence of the Tarot is emphasised by the division of the text into five sections, each headed by an image of a card. First is the Empress, followed by the Magician, the Queen of Coins, the Hanged Man and the Judgement. (The images featured in the text, with a certain poetic licence, are from the Marseille deck, first published in 1760, almost a century after the events in the novel; and the drawing of the Queen of Coins is from after 1910.)
Lesage, who works with the cards, is based on a figure from French history. The other principal historical figure is Catherine Montvoisin, Lesage’s lover, and the central person in a labyr- City of Crows By Chris Womersley Picador, 400pp, $32.99