Having thoroughly enjoyed Karen Maitland's novel The Owl Killers I thought I'd try her earlier book, Company of Liars, set during the Plague. Once again Maitland concentrates on the ordinary people of medieval England, in this case a group of travellers trying to escape the Plague, and their own pasts. Each member of the party brings their story to the group, but, as the title suggests, its not necessarily clear how true that story is.
Maitland brilliantly portrays a society permanently on the edge. The vast majority of people struggling to get by, constantly under the threat of failing crops, hard taxes, and poverty. None of her characters are peasants, but they are all tied to the land in the sense that their existence is very much on a day to day basis. As they travel, the food they can buy, beg, borrow or steal becomes increasingly important, particularly as crops fail from the combination of bad weather and the decimation of the peasantry through disease.
Maitland says that she is particularly fascinated by the links between myth and reality in medieval England. The novel's narrator is carefully drawn. They speak with the knowledge of a medieval person for whom werewolves, spirits, magic and religion are part of life. Thus while the story presents enough evidence for the reader to rationally explain some of the more unusual happenings, the characters themselves can never be sure. Here to, the complexities of medieval Christianity are laid bare - the multiple interpretations of biblical passages, the behaviour of monks and nuns, the contradictions between the needs of society and a strict understanding of religious doctrine.
Knowing what took place during the Plague years, and the lack of comprehension of anyone about how to avoid or deal with the disaster makes the novel poignant. But Maitland doesn't mistake lack of scientific knowledge for ignorance. Her medieval characters are extremely knowledgeable about the world around them. Where and how to get food from the woods and countryside, about healing herbs and so on. Society itself is complex with traditions, customs and work described brilliantly.
As with Owl Killers I thought the novels ending let the rest of the story down. But nonetheless this is an excellent work of historical fiction which vividly brings to life a very different society and the struggle of ordinary people to survive.
Maitland - The Owl Killers