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Why This Book Should Win – Winter Mythologies and Abbotts by BTBA Judge James Crossley

James Crossley is a bookseller at Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s Message in a Bottle blog and for the website of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association.

Winter Mythologies and Abbotts – Pierre Michon, Translated from the French by Ann Jefferson, France
Yale University Press

Winter Mythologies and Abbots was one of the first books I read as a BTBA judge, and it registered with me positively at the time. I didn’t expect it to stay with me so long, though, and slowly percolate its way to the upper reaches of my list of favorites.

The book was a originally a pair of books before translator Ann Jefferson and publisher Yale University Press got hold of them. The two parts are perfectly complementary in their new single volume, each a set of short fictions about obscure historical figures in Ireland and France. These monks and saints exist today as barely more than footnotes in ancient texts, but Pierre Michon treats their lives with the same significance as historians do kings and queens. More to the point, he bestows upon them the same level of attention that Tolstoy gives to Anna Karenina or Dickens to David Copperfield. Not that Michon is anything like as exhaustive as those authors were, but his feelings seem as intense. His imagination has made his characters real again.

It’s a further measure of his skills that they seem so despite how odd they remain. They are people whose lives are dedicated to faith and tradition, who see only the barest glimmers of rational enlightenment on the very distant horizon, and their motivations are often alien to modern eyes. Unlike most such characters in historical fiction, however, they’re not designed to allow self-congratulatory dismissal by contemporary readers. Their worldview is as complex and confused as ours, and paints as convincing a picture of medieval and pre-medieval times as I can imagine.

You’ll have to take my word for it when I say that the tack Michon’s taken here with his subject and his setting is not at all one to which I’m naturally sympathetic. Neither do I tend to favor fiction without some bravura to its prose, and that’s not WM&A’s style. It’s a quiet, modest work of carefully selected detail and incident that insinuates itself into the reader’s mind. I promise that this is not a recipe that guarantees notice by a BTBA judge who’s surveying half a thousand books in half a year, but it worked like magic in this case. I can’t recommend Winter Mythologies and Abbots highly enough.



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