No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

2016/77: Company of Liars -- Karen Maitland

Once, half-submerged in a sodden field, we saw the statue of St Florian, his millstone tied around his neck. Since their saint was unable to protect them from the rains, the parishioners had stripped his statue of his scarlet cloak and golden halo, beaten him and cast him out to face the elements. Many of the cottagers were no longer begging God for mercy, they were angry with him. They felt betrayed...[loc. 2898]

Set in 1348, just after the Black Death has reached England: 'Camelot', a hawker of relics, decides to head north to avoid the plague. Camelot is joined by Cygnus, a swan-winged story-teller; Zophiel, a travelling magician with a wagonful of heavy boxes; Venetian musician Rodrigo and his pupil Jofre; painter Osmond and his wife Adela, who is expecting their first child; Pleasance, a midwife; and a strange white-haired child, Narigorm, who reads runes and is given to doom-laden pronouncements.

As Doctor House says, 'everybody lies'. All of these travellers are lying, concealing their individual, desperately important, secrets: and many of them are doomed by their lies.

Around them the fabric of society is falling apart. The weather is abominable, the harvest has failed; the people feel betrayed by God and take refuge in superstition and xenophobia; there are outlaws roaming the roads, and wolves in the forests, and the pestilence lays waste to whole villages. Somebody -- or something -- is following the little company of nine. And then the deaths begin...

Company of Liars is not a cheerful read, but it's a strangely compelling one: I found myself eager to unravel the lies and deceptions of each member of the company, and knotting together hints and allusions to stay one step ahead of the narrator. There is definitely something uncanny going on, and it seems to centre on Narigorm -- the only character whose motivation ('because I can') I found less than convincing. The other characters felt familiar to me from medieval literature, and novels set in the period: you could read this as a modern variation on The Canterbury Tales (where, remember, not everyone is wholly honest about their past), or as a critique of those Decameron-esque works where aristocrats retire to a secluded villa to eat and drink and tell stories to one another. But the stories in Company of Liars are rather more brutal.

I see why people have an issue with the ending of this novel: it feels ... unnecessary. Cheap, even. But it does indicate that even Camelot's lie has been unravelled.

No comments:

Post a Comment