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All Fall Down Paperback – 4 April 2013
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There's just something really scary about the thought of a plague that could kill more than half the population of Europe. It's a fear that has inspired a whole horde of modern preoccupations, from the Zombie apocalypse to superflu pandemics. All Fall Down plays on that fear, bringing it to life through Isabel, who has the misfortune to be stuck in the middle of Black Death's worst outbreak in history.
Isabel is not a particularly likeable character. She's a coward, equally selfish and fearful most of the time. But in the context of the story, it works. She's not got a massive quest to go on, requiring bravery and heart. She's stuck in her village while all her friends and family die around her, and her reactions to this are realistic, leaving you questioning how you would behave should you find yourself in that situation. Exactly the same, I would imagine.
It's a claustrophobic little tale, made worse by the fact that we now know why the plague spread, but the ignorance of people at the time meant they endangered themselves unknowingly. The story also brings to light how the absolute dregs of society acted - charging for digging graves and stealing from the homes of the dead. The dark side of human nature is illuminated, and it's about as pretty as a Black Death buboe.
A scary little story that fans of the grizzlier side of historical fiction will enjoy. The period is brought scarily to life.
In All Fall Down, a lot more children die - but from the Black Death of 1349. The story of how the plague affects a village outside York is told by thirteen year old Isabel, the eldest daughter in a farming family in thrall to the local landowner. Isabel is nearing the cusp of womanhood, and she hopes she will go on to marry Robin, her childhood sweetheart. As the plague nears, life changes and soon people begin to die, some flee, but Isabel's family stay - for where would they go? When the disease takes her parents, she and Robin have to act as parents to her younger siblings. There being no-one left to order them to work, they take the opportunity to go to York with a merchant who has lost his own family. Isabel finds it hard to adapt to city ways and yearns to return to her village and farm again - now a free woman.
There is a lot of well-researched history in this novel, I learned lots about the period and the Black Death itself from it. Isabel's family life seemed hard work but idyllic, a picture of happy villeins farming their strips of land; maybe it didn't seem quite hard and muddy enough - although once people started falling ill, the overpowering stench of death was everpresent, even if most of the illness occurred off the page.
Isabel herself is at times a bit contrary - a caring girl but she scarcely shows it, except when she was worried about her beloved brother Geoffrey at the monastery. The rest of the characters come across as rather bland, although Isabel's stepmother, Alice, always brightens the page when she appears. We have to remember though that this story is told through Isabel's eyes, and she is a survivor. I enjoyed this book very much but, as an adult, I wish it had been even darker, but that might be too offputting for its main younger readership.
Top international reviews
das Wegsterben von fast der Hälfte der Bevölkerung ergaben, werden am Beispiel der brachliegenden Felder und der Inbesitznahme des herrenlosen Landes durch bis dahin unfreie Bauern gut erklärt. Ich bin zwar nicht so begeistert wie der Rezensent im WDR5, werde aber das Buch für meine Enkel kaufen.