Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
It’s a long time since I’ve picked up a novel that gripped me so much I just had to finish it as quickly as possible. But this is what happened when I discovered, quite by accident, or good fortune, Karen Maitland’s Company of Liars.
It is 1348 and the Black Plague has disembarked on the English shores. The narrator, Camelot – itinerant peddler of bogus holy relics – is making his way north and inland to try and outrun the plague. Along the way, believing in safety in numbers, Camelot is joined by various other misfits: a musician and his apprentice, a magician, a one-armed storyteller, a young couple on the run, a midwife, and a ghostly rune-reading girl who tells their pasts and predicts their futures with unnerving accuracy.
In a world ruled by fear, faith and superstition, the plague constantly snapping at their heels, this odd group of bedfellows grudgingly bear each other as they suffer incessant rain and cold, starvation, assaults and terror as they try to stay beyond the sweep of death that is ravaging England.
While brilliantly evoking the squalor, the smells, and the danger of the plague years, this powerful story does not focus on these grim conditions, but rather on the hopes, dreams and fears of every exquisitely-drawn character. Each member of the group has a story to tell, a secret to hide, a lie to conceal. Over the months they travel, eat, sleep and face disaster together, they learn more about one another until each secret is revealed in turn, often with dire consequences. Finally, it is revealed that one of them masks the darkest secret of all; a curse far worse than the pestilence they are struggling to flee – a secret that propels the company of liars towards a destiny neither they, nor the reader, sees coming.
I recommend this ingenious blend of history, primal terror and powerful human drama to anyone who appreciates a tale of mediaeval intrigue, mild fantasy and plain good storytelling.
I’m so excited because Karen Maitland’s following medieval thriller –– The Owl Killers –– dropped into my letterbox this morning, the cover just as quirky and invitingly creepy as Company of Liars. Now, where did I put that “Do Not Disturb” sign?
I loved the richly textured depiction of medieval life that Maitland evokes. It is very easy to shrug off bald factual statements about the bubonic plague when you read them in history books. Maitland shows you what it must have been like to have been there as the ‘Mort Bleu’ began its remorseless march across England.
Her characters too leap off the page. Like all the huge cast of characters from the Name of the Rose, there is a touch of the grotesque about almost all of them, but that certainly does not mean that they are flat or stereotyped.
The visceral realism of the setting is leavened by touches of what may or may not be real magic. To being with the reader can dismiss these as medieval superstition. But as the novel progresses, doubts set in. Is this magic real – or is it the characters’ belief in it that is making things happen?
The book has echoes of Bocaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Several characters recount their stories ‘spun’ into a classic fairy tales, and these form the basis of the ‘lies’ of which they will ultimately stand accused. This is perhaps where I would quarrel a little with the structure of the book. The first tale is told by a professional storyteller and he does it with beguiling skill. But when other characters follow suit, they seem to acquire a ‘storytelling voice’ that is alien to their own. I could have forgiven this if each character in turn did the same and it became a formal ‘punctuation’ to the overarching story. As it is, it felt a little artificial and incosistent.
My other small niggle was that, to begin with, the story felt somewhat episodic. Did they really need to be chased away from each place of refuge after just ONE night? It was perhaps about half way through that story settled down and I began to feel pulled along by the strength of the plot.
But these are small grumbles in what was otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read.
Catriona Troth (@L1bcat)
Take a bunch of itinerant travellers, add a white haired child with a penchant for rune reading, throw in a dash of superstition and a pinch of panic, and cover with a sumptuous cloth of yellow and gold. Allow time for simmering on a book shelf until the temptation to read is simply too much, and then open and indulge in written magic... I have the utmost admiration for an author who, with consummate ease, can bring to life the very sights, sounds and smells of the medieval world, and recreate a world so entirely that as you read, you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and when you are forced back to the 21C, the smell of wood smoke still lingers in the air, and you can almost imagine you are still there......
I really enjoyed The Company of Liars. I have a strange relationship with historical fiction, I'm not so keen on stories about the gentry and royalty, but adore tales that are about ordinary people in history, and this one was excellent.
I live just outside Lincoln city and have been lucky enough to meet Karen Maitland a few times - at author talks and book signings and also personally at the Lincoln Book Festival where I sat next to her as we listened to another author speak - and had a lovely chat.
She's a great author, very knowledgeable about her subjects too.
In this extraordinary novel, Karen Maitland delivers a dazzling reinterpretation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales--an ingenious alchemy of history, mystery, and powerful human drama.
The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to outrun the certain death that is running inexorably toward them.
Each member of this motley company has a story to tell. From Camelot, the relic-seller who will become the group's leader, to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller . . . from the strange, silent child called Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each has a secret. None is what they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all--propelling these liars to a destiny they never saw coming.
Magical, heart-quickening, and raw, Company of Liars is a work of vaulting imagination from a powerful new voice in historical fiction.