Cuddy, Benjamin Myers’s bewitching tenth novel, starts with a short history lesson about St Cuthbert, a 7th-century shepherd boy who became a monk after experiencing a vision. He died as Bishop of Lindisfarne in 687 on the even more remote island of Inner Farne, off the Northumbrian coast. Today, his remains lie in a shrine in Durham Cathedral, which was founded in his honour in 1093 and draws 700,000 visitors a year.
But Myers has not written about Cuddy, to use the nickname bestowed on the North of England’s unofficial saint, so much as Cuddy’s enduring influence. The author – whose previous novels include crop-circle folk tale The Perfect Golden Circle (2022) and Second World War coming-of-age story The Offing (2019) – sets the book on Lindisfarne and in and around Durham (known, through the ages, as Dunholme, Duresme and Dunelm).
Cuddy is split into four parts, with an additional prologue and interlude. It spans both time, from AD 687 to 2019, and different narrative forms, dancing between poetry, prose, diary entries, a ghost story, and snippets of various non-fiction; there is even a short play script. Myers tells the stories of those history forgets: the abused wife of a 14th-century archer who falls in love with a stone mason; young Scots defeated by Oliver Cromwell’s army and imprisoned in the cathedral; a jobbing labourer earning below minimum wage in the 21st century. All are connected by Durham Cathedral – a “vast vessel of stone” built to house a “dead saint, still alive, in a way, even in death”.
The impact is mesmerising and less disjointed than you might fear. Myers starts in the 10th century, using poetry and quotations from various different sources, to tell the story of the “Cuthbert community”, monks who travelled around, carrying the saint’s body to protect it from attack by Viking invaders, while searching a fitting spot for his final resting place. Ediva, an orphan who cooks for them, has visions that imagine the structure that will become Durham Cathedral when they find the Dun Holm – or “hill island” – that is to be the location.
From there, Myers skips to 1346, a year known for victory for the English over the French at Crécy but one marked by continuing warfare in the borderlands. In the stonemason’s yard, great slabs of stone sit “waiting for the shapes inside of them to be first imagined and freed.” With each new block carved, the cathedral is growing greater, growing more ornate. Much later, in the final section, more stone masons – this time including a woman – will spend years fixing a balustrade that was coming loose after a thousand winters of bad weather, up at the top of the cathedral’s tower where time is “measured by the centuries and millennia rather than hours and minutes”.
Myers’ lyrical novel, which took almost five years to write, stands in a genre of its own. Its constant links of place and Cuthbert’s legacy do more than adhere each section into a novel: they serve as a reminder that we are but custodians of a world we inherited. Cuddy cements Myers’s standing as one of our finest, and most deftly imaginative, writers.
Cuddy by Benjamin Myers is out now (Bloomsbury, £20)