Carmel Bird

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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