by Susann Cokal
Published by BlueHen Books
389 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Entering the creepy medieval world Susann Cokal creates in her first novel Mirabilis is something like walking into a house of horrors at an amusement park. Here a leering skull leaps out at you, there a swarm of rats overwhelms you and the end result is that your hair stands on end. If this is the sort of reading experience you seek out and enjoy, you'll probably relish Mirabilis.
If on the other hand you have a weak stomach, some of Mirabilis' more over-the-top scenes may leave you feeling a little queasy. The macabre is a tough genre and it takes a Poe (or even a Stephen King) to carry it off successfully.
I will confess I admired this novel more than I enjoyed it: admired it for its intricate plot, dense web of characters and pungently rich language. In 14th century France, a young woman named Bonne Tardieu plies her trade as a wet nurse in Villeneuve, a town suffocated by religious stricture and a horror of the plague. In this murky atmosphere people pitch buckets of excrement out of open windows and pick lice out of each other's hair (the original meaning of our modern word "nitpicker").
"Tardieu" is the nickname the town has branded Bonne with. It means "God's bastard" and refers to her illegitimate birth to Blanche Mirabilis, a 15-year-old virgin with a strange habit of levitating off the ground:
Blanche is floating upward. Before she knows it, her feet have left the floor. Her mouth tastes of dust, and her left shoe falls off. Unseen hands continue to lift her until she rests high above the heads of her parents...
Nine months later, Blanche gives birth and no one is quite sure if Bonne's father is really the holy spirit or just a wayward priest bending the rules for a night. In other words, Bonne is stigmatized: "No saint can suffer a woman who makes a living from her body, whether she sells her sex or her milk." To keep the flow going between clients, Bonne resorts to suckling a grown man, a celibate sculptor named Godfridus who is given to bouts of self-flagellation for sins real or imagined.
For Bonne, suckling is a sensuous experience: "When the first wet tongue touches my nipple I feel a thrill of fear, then a trill of the unconquerable pleasure I feel whenever I'm suckled. The milk gushes out suddenly in twin fountains, every pore open. I stand, holding my breasts up and squeezing them so the liquid arcs outward."
Bonne seems to have a lot of people depending on her for succor of one kind or another. There is Marie, her ancient grandmother, an anchorite who has willingly sealed herself into the ruins of an old church, relying on Blanche for food. There is Hercule, one of the strangest characters I've encountered in recent fiction, a six-year-old waif who turns out to be a particularly nasty and vindictive middle-aged dwarf.
But it gets even stranger when Pierre, an ambitious local priest who may be Bonne's natural father, sends her to spy on Radegonde Putemonnoie, one of the wealthiest women in town. Pregnant and widowed, praying for a male heir for reasons of inheritance, Radegonde is soon to be in need of Bonne's prodigious twin fountains. But she is also rumored to be dabbling in the black arts, the real reason for Pierre's spy game. Bonne observes, "If the new church is to become a cathedral, I think, Pierre will not rest until he is made its bishop. And what a coup it would be, a paving stone on his own path to holiness, if he could prove the richest woman in town to be a witch."
Though it is already strange enough that Bonne suckles adults, things take on a creepy sort of eroticism when Radegonde Putemonnoie insists on sampling Bonne's wares: "My milk is plentiful, as always. She must be pleased. And I, how I feel with those plump red lips on me .... The red mouth is fastened on the blue-veined breast a living tongue suckling at more life, teasing and tickling the node of a well-worn nipple."
While I am all for breastfeeding, and have even suckled a couple of infants myself, Bonne's particular gift verges on the supernatural, if not the downright ludicrous. When Villeneuve is under siege by the British and starving, she single-handedly rescues the entire community by breastfeeding all its citizens: "I am Villeneuve's wet nurse. I am nursing the town. I am a fountain gushing milk; I am a tree weeping life from my branches. Not just the starving babies whose mamans' breasts have dried up, not just for the sick and the old, but for everyone." One set of rosy lips after another latches on to those incredible palpitating nipples.
But there are other sticking points in this bizarre story. Godfridus the sculptor is so obsessed with a nun named Clara that he digs up her dead body so he can carve her likeness: "To this day I do not know the color of Clara's eyes. For as I lifted her lids there sprang up a sudden breeze, a hot wind that carried on it the wet breath of corruption. Under my very hands her body fell apart. The flesh slipped from her bones, the blood puddled yellow-brown in the box, her skull snapped, and worms slid through the cracks." It seems to me I have read a description something like this before, in a legendary short story by Edgar Allan Poe, but Poe (being a genius) managed to pull it off much more effectively.
There are passages which are even more off-putting, such as a scene in which Radegonde sucks a mouthful of pus out of Godfridus' infection-bloated hand, and a grotesque birth scene too raw to quote here. Even apart from the stomach-churning details, there are some structural problems with the narration, which switches from Bonne to Godfridus to Hercule the nasty dwarf in jarring, disjointed fashion.
Is Mirabilis nothing more than a sort of macabre medieval bodice-ripper? Not quite. For Cokal does create a seething, festering world to be sure in her depiction of Villeneuve, its strangely erotic hysteria over witches and plague and its flagellants reaching ecstasy through pain. Reading the novel is something like ingesting a powerful, if unpleasant drug. It's a danse macabre, a drippy dungeon of a book that swallows the reader completely. Cokal writes beautifully about appallingly ugly things, a strange combination that works if you can stand it. Not for the faint of heart, Mirabilis is worth a read for the fascination Cokal injects into the timeworn genre of horror. | January 2002
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.