I think it’s best to start with the parts of Company of Liars – Karen Maitland’s ‘novel of the plague’ – that I enjoyed. Set in England in 1348, it follows nine uneasy and incompatible strangers who band together and travel northwards in a desperate bid to outrace the Black Death. The novel plods along without any real pace, but the reader is treated to some evocative period settings along the way, including an unfinished chantry chapel, a Hermit’s island in the Fens and a Shepherd’s hut.
Hellbent on avoiding infected villages, the characters stick to the road and are almost constantly on the move. As such, the plague is more of a peripheral presence – none of the party are infected – and its effects are best highlighted by empty homes ominously decorated with black crosses. More pressing is the need to find food, shelter and suitable passage (poor weather has decimated crops, burst river banks and offset the mental health-related benefits of camping outside). Doom and gloom are everywhere, and the stark realities of medieval travel, particularly in the colder months, are captured well.
Blurring the boundary between the real and supernatural is a common trope in fiction set in the Middle Ages. This stems, in part, from the medieval world-view – belief in ghosts, angels, devils etc. Throughout Company of Liars events that at first seem ‘magical’ are, in time, shown to be quite the opposite. Rational thought and reason repeatedly triumph over mysticism. That is, until the final 50-pages. During the novel, the group are followed on their travels by a lone wolf who howls every few nights. It transpires that one of the party – Zophiel – used to be a priest in Lincoln, but after being accused of a grave transgression he is forced to flee, and steals holy relics from the church in retaliation. He claims the wolf is actually a ‘bishop’s wolf’ – a kind of hitman who has been sent to carefully recapture the stolen goods and murder him at the bishop’s command. Yet in the closing chapters *spoiler* we find out that Narigorm – a youthful, although sinister girl, who interprets runes – is responsible for conjuring the noises. The sudden occultist revelation feels forced and upsets the novel’s entire ideological framework. Rather than shock, it actually confuses the reader.
Aside from characters spouting painfully anachronistic views, clunky writing and a repetitive middle section, the narrator, a relic-seller named Camelot, encourages little sympathy. Published in 2008, I can’t help thinking this is the kind of entry-level medieval escapism that would have sold well in the wake of the Global Recession. And despite my criticism, something impelled me to plough on for 550-pages and reach the rather odd conclusion. Perhaps I was inspired by the stoic efforts of the characters.
I’m currently reading Byzantium by Judith Herrin and moving onto Ravenna, her newest book, after.
There’s a great anecdote at the start of Byzantium. The author – a Professor of Byzantine History at King’s College London – is approached by two builders and asked, “What is Byzantine History?” This book is her response to the question posed by the workmen: an attempt to illuminate the world of Byzantium for ‘non-specialists’.…