This was … not what I expected.
A band of travellers in the England of 1348, travelling and telling tales to each other over the course of their journeys. The reviews and comments on it make an obvious but – to my mind – highly suspect assertion that this somehow a re-imagining of The Canterbury Tales. In fairness, I don’t think the author Karen Maitland makes that assertion. But many reviewers did and it is in no way a re-imagining of Chaucer.
What Maitland offers instead is a disreputable rabble – liars by profession or necessity or self-delusional – thrown together and roaming the cities, villages, forests and marshes of England. There is an aimlessness about the journey – which has no end point save to avoid the plague – which seems to reflect in the meandering structure of the novel. The opening hundred pages or so chronicle the coming together of an apparently random assortment of nine characters; the final hundred pages finally gets its teeth into becoming a psychological thriller; the middle three hundred pages … meanders.
Sure, we get to see a lot of Maitland’s historical research thrown back at us: details of a variety of cons and tricks and unpleasant menial tasks. But I never felt fully drawn into the world. It felt a little too much like Madame Tussaud’s or Warwick Castle for my liking: somehow it was as if those historical details were waxworks and contrived. As if the history was the end in itself rather than serving the needs of the plot.
And the characters were all rather bleak. Our narrator is Camelot, a peddlar of relics using his lies to sell ‘hope’. His company is swollen initially by Joffrey and Rodrigo, musicians, and then the travelling magician, Zofield; a pregnant woman and her husband, Adela and Osmund; a waif like child Narigorm, whose white hair and pale skin mark her out as strongly as Camelot’s missing eye, and her nurse Patience; and most bizarrely Cygnus, a boy whose arm is in fact a swan’s wing. I mean, what? A swan’s wing? And everyone just accepts that as a fact? Really?
Not many of the characters were actually all that likeable: Zofield in particular was abhorrent decrying Jews, vampires, women, children and homosexuals with equal vehemence and venom. I mean seriously, why did these people put up with him? Joffrey was a whiney little boy who needed a good slap. His story was possibly the most interesting but one of the least developed. Patience was no more than a silent two-dimensional character. In fact, did Maitland give any of her female characters the richness they deserve? The richness we deserve as a reader?
I could go on.
I did quite like Camelot but his easy acceptance of almost everything he encountered did jar. There was something very modern in his sensibilities which jarred with the setting. I fear that, however unpleasant Zofield was, his was a more typical depiction of attitudes in the fourteenth century.
Having said this, it did keep me engaged and interested through the whole novel although some of the chapter transitions were very abrupt and jarring. Part of the reason for this was the narration by David Thorpe, whose voice had a lovely authentic northernness to it which was wonderfully refreshing. But there were perhaps half a dozen moments when a chapter would end on a slow heavy ominous note and Thorpe would leap in with “Chapter X” in a jaunty voice, full of cheer.
There are two moments I want to highlight for you. The birth of Oswin and Adela’s baby was probably the strongest chapter in the novel – the claustrophobia of the incomplete chapel in which it occurs, the dire warnings and portents surrounding it, the sheer physicality of the task.
In contrast, the final chapter – with its heavily signposted revelation – was a terrible ending. I think Maitland was aiming for a cliffhanger of suspense – like the phone ringing at the end of An Inspector Calls, with which it actually bears many similarities – but it just falls completely flat.
So, in conclusion, I have reservations – mainly that it’s overlong and its characterisation- but I did get gripped and I did enjoy the more psychological thriller aspect. I’d probably read another by her. It was, after all, only her second novel.