Monday, June 29, 2009

Book review: Karen Maitland - The Owl Killers (plus Lowdham Book Festival event)

Last year at Lowdham I foolishly foreswore myself from purchasing Karen Maitland's intriguing looking novel Company of Liars: a novel of the plague - I had already spent my book allowance and was carrying more books than I could justify adding towards so I let it go. But the book haunted me with its exquisite cover and its intriguing premise and its even more intriguing opening line:
"So that's settled then, we bury her alive in the iron bridle. That'll keep her tongue still."
By autumn I was itching to obtain it but the details had escaped me and it was only thanks to judicious searching of the Lowdham book festival website that Neil untangled the details sufficient to order me the book. I loved Company of Liars and I have since recommended it widely - not just here but In Real Life. I was therefore keen to not mess up a second time and catch her talk at Lowdham this year about her new book, The Owl Killers.

But there was a minor panic: the hardback had sold out and the paperback wasn't due until the autumn. A sign, with no presence of any books beneath it, declared this on the main festival book display table. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!

Thankfully, Lowdham's own independent book shop has staff that are made of sterner stuff, unprepared to admit defeat. They kept on at publishers Penguin until it was probably easier for them to capitulate. Trade paperbacks were provided, as big and fat and juicy as the hardback that CoL had been with a comparable whopping great 560 pages of delightful reading on offer. I was much relieved to see them for sale at her speaking event in the Lowdham Primitive Methodist Hall.

With that relief, we could get onto the business of hearing Maitland discuss her new work. Like her previous text, it remains in the middle ages but whereas CoL had a single narrator, The Owl Killers has multiple narrators and - to my mind - works all the better for that because the narrative thrust is so different. Maitland patiently led her audience through the development of the novel: CoL's narrator has originally been intended as merely the opening and closing commentator for The Owl Killers. Indeed, there is a brief trace remaining in the epilogue of TOK of our/a camelot and it is fascinating to think that that wonderful character from CoL could ever have been contained to the outskirts of another text. But TOK is very much its own work, if still full of the same detail for history and story-telling.

I confess I knew relatively little of the history of beguinages, in Europe or in England. But Maitland spoke with gentle authority of the fascinating history she had discovered in the outlands of historical writings - and I certainly will be on the lookout for further texts on their fragmented history and presence in England. Centred on a collective of women who have moved to the outskirts of the village of Ulewic, the narrative combines religious history - both within and outside the Catholic church, the lives of women, rural poverty, and manorial power with tales of ancient beliefs and fraught attitudes towards sexuality. It is a heady mix and one that kept me turning the pages frantically through the weekend (I started it yesterday - Sunday - and had to force myself to pause with a 1/5th still to complete before concluding it this evening after work).

Heartily recommended. It may be a different style of narrative structure to the single viewpoint narration of CoL but The Owl Killers is a worthy successor to its skillful story-telling.


chrissie_allen said...

Hey that sounds terrific. I truly love CoL so will be putting TOK on my to read list. Lowdham seems a great event to go to. How brilliant! You've certainly been busy with the reading lately Lisa!


ross bradshaw said...

Chrissie: do feel free to come to Lowdham next year, and Lisa, introduce yourself! I'm one of the organisers...