The current trend for dystopian fiction means that bookshop shelves are full of books describing devastated worlds. But very little that can be imagined can compare with the real horrors of the Black Death as evoked by Sally Nicholls in her new novel, All Fall Down. Sally Nicholls talks about its genesis to Books for Keeps.
I buried with my own hands five of my children in a single grave…No bells. No tears. This is the end of the world.
These harrowing lines, written by Agnolo di Tura in 1348, open Sally Nicholls’ new book All Fall Down. Nicholls has said that she is drawn to write big books, dealing with big ideas, big themes. Her award winning debut novel Ways to Live Forever told the story of eleven-year-old Sam, dying of leukaemia – and now in All Fall Down her subject is the Black Death.
The current trend for dystopian fiction means that bookshop shelves are full of books describing devastated worlds, their populations cowed, violent or diseased. But very little that can be imagined can compare with the real horrors of the Black Death.
I must be very morbid! I’m drawn to narratives of disaster
“The Black Death is the closest thing we have to the end of the world,” explains Sally Nicholls. “The First World War killed around 1.5% of the British population but the Black Death wiped out 45%. Writings from the period describe how people were waiting for the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Book of Revelations predicted that one third of the world would die at Judgement Day, so the Black Death was actually far worse.”
And it is this apocalyptic nature of the Black Death which attracted Sally to it as a subject. “I must be very morbid!” she says, “I’m drawn to narratives of disaster. I grew up in the 1980s and so many of the books I read as a teenager were about nuclear apocalypse.” Here she mentions John Wyndham, Louise Lawrence, Neville Shute and Jean Ure’s Plague 99. “These books were so frightening to me, much more than horror films ever were, because they were real. But they were absorbing too: how could you survive in a world with no central heating, no food.”
Just like the books she cites, All Fall Down will have a tremendous and long-lasting impact on young readers, not least because it does indeed feel so very real. Sally’s descriptions of the medieval world are extraordinarily lively and vivid, the people she describes far more similar to us than you would expect.
Sometimes historical novels can feel like fantasy to me
This immediacy was important to her and she decided very early on that her characters would speak in contemporary, if slang free, dialogue. “If the book had been set in Victorian times I would have felt it much more necessary to use authentic language, but here anything I wrote would have been a translation,” she says. “Sometimes historical novels can feel like fantasy to me, I really didn’t want that. I avoided using medieval terms if they didn’t add something, if there’s another word that means the same. Solar, however. is a particular part of a medieval house so it was important to use that. Hose are not stockings but something different, so I chose to use that.” The book has a short but illuminating glossary.
Sally found the research for the book fascinating. “The more I read about medieval England, the more interesting I found it. Lots of the assumptions I’d had turned out to be wrong. For example, I’d assumed that all young girls got married young. This was common for members of the aristocracy but not for the peasants: at 14 if you were working hard on the land, you weren’t physically ready for marriage. Elderly people had their own houses, they weren’t living in a corner of their children’s houses as I’d imagined – there are so many more similarities between medieval and modern life than you’d expect. As a child, I’d really have liked that.”
The story is narrated by 13-year-old Isabel. Isabel is a peasant, the eldest girl in a family of seven; but she’s also a real individual – tough, affectionate, thoughtful, compassionate. She enjoys working the land and tending the animals and it’s clear she’s good at it.
Seeing the pestilence through Isabel’s unwavering eyes is terrifying. Her friends and family die around her, and like Agnolo di Tura she has to cope with the terrible practicalities of burying your dead when there’s no one left to help.
I wanted to shock
“The image of di Tura burying his family really stuck with me,” says Sally. “It’s very grim. But I wanted to shock, to say this is what happened, in England, in your world. People generally are quite complacent about the fragility of life. Isabel and her community watch the Plague affecting the French, then Londoners, without believing it will come to them. I wanted to show that catastrophes happened here, and could happen again.”
But Isabel is a survivor too and though living through the Plague was a terrible experience, her life after it is set to be much better. This is where All Fall Down differs so completely from dystopian fantasies, and where it is so much more interesting.
I wanted to challenge the idea of everything going backwards
“The recent fashion in dystopian novels is that the inevitable result of an extraordinary disaster is that fascists or religious fanatics take over in the aftermath, resulting in a more repressive society, with women are forced back into the kitchen and traditional roles.” Sally says.
“But if you look at the society that emerged after terrible events like the First World War, or the Second World War, then generally society was better as a result. I wanted to challenge the idea of everything going backwards; for example before the First World War, the civil service was staffed entirely by those who’d been to Oxbridge. But when you don’t have the luxury of being able to recruit only from that pool then those jobs have to be given to people from different backgrounds. Society was better as a result. This was the case after the Plague too. There was more food to go round; feudalism was really weakened.”
Isabel and the surviving members of her family are free at the end of the book, villeins no longer, with the chance to really make something for themselves. She compares them to Noah and Mrs Noah in the mystery play, looking out at a new world. It’s a powerful image that looks forward, while reminding us again of the horrors that Isabel has lived through; an image that links ancient and modern.
What does Sally think she would have thought of the book as a young reader? “I hope I would have liked it, that it would have frightened me! And I hope I would have picked up all the references to modern England”.
All Fall Down is published by Scholastic (978 1 407121 72 7) price £7.99.
Andrea Reece is marketing director for Books for Keeps and marketing consultant to children’s publishers.