Not so different

I thoroughly enjoyed Karen Maitland's crime / supernatural novel Company of Liars set in an England battling to come to terms with the onset of the Black Death. The owl killers, despite a title that doesn't altogether make sense in the context of the novel, is even better.

Set in the fictional Norfolk village of Ulewic in 1321, Maitland portrays a country that is in the grip of dramatic climate change, new diseases, and, perhaps exacerbated by the forces of nature that are causing chaos, an increasingly paranoid and lawless land. The community centres around the church, which houses an inept priest, and the manor, which is corrupt and cruel. On the outskirts of the village are a group of religious women, but these aren't nuns, they are beguines.

The beguinage movement was a series of women's collectives, they were religious in ethos, but the sole vow was one of celibacy while within the community, and a woman was free to leave any time. They ran hospitals and clinics, provided education, and were ace traders via their connections to others beguinages, and flourished throughout Flanders and France in the medieval period. Until fairly recently it was believed that there had never been any in England, but more recent evidence hints otherwise. They appear to have been more liberal in their religious beliefs than the church in the same period, and this inevitably brought them into conflict with authority. That, and the fact that they were a glowing example of how women could live independently and be successful.

The male hierarchy of Ulewic society has a lot to lose if the Beguines are successful, so the Owl Masters, a vigilante force with a supernatural edge set out to run the women out of Ulewic.

It's an extraordinary tale, and is much more complicated than the basic outline I've given here. It's wonderfully nuanced. It can be read as a straight historical / supernatural novel; or you can work your way through the layers with questions about identity, religion v superstition, the borders of sanity and madness. Told through 5 different narrators, all with their own agendas, Maitland manages to hold this complex tale together giving each narrator a very individual voice, and cleverly making the reader change their opinions of the characters throughout the book.

I loved this. I thought it was so well written. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the beguine movement, which I'd never heard of before. But as a novel this was superb - dark, entertaining, informative, moving. A great read. If you've never come across Karen Maitland before, have a look at her webpage, and read her books - for a snapshot of a time that we like to think is very different from our own, but actually has many similarities, her books will make you think again.


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