Karen Maitland, ‘Company of Liars’ Review

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.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

I’m currently reading Byzantium by Judith Herrin and moving onto Ravenna, her newest book, after.


Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

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’. … Continue reading Judith Herrin, ‘Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire’

November Reading: Recap


November was quite a busy month for me, so I haven’t found the time to post any reviews – or to even read a lot! But I did tackle four books over the month, which I will very briefly review during this post, despite it being the middle of December.

I actually received an Economist subscription for my birthday a few months ago and it’s only dawned on me recently how long it takes to read; I easily spend 3-4 hours going through each edition every week: time that could invariably be spent reading other things.

Once again, I read a few historical texts – and also managed to squeeze in yet another Tom Holland book. But I also ventured into economics/finance with The Economist Guide to Financial Markets. The intention was to shore up my knowledge of financial markets – unsure if its paid dividends or not…

November’s reads

David Edgerton, ‘The Rise and Fall of the British Nation’ (Allen Lane)

Excruciatingly researched. The level of detail is astounding – clearly the culmination of decades of academic study. Fundamentally a revisionist work that debunks popular myths surrounding the British nation, but also a lot more than that.

Dense, scholarly and testing – not for the faint hearted. I found myself zoning out at times, especially when Edgerton starts one of many long-lists (on every British trade union in the inter-war period, for example).

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Tom Holland, ‘Persian Fire’ (Little, Brown Book Group)

My favourite Tom Holland work so far. Explores the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BC, playing close attention to battles like Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae.

I learned a lot about Persian and Athenian culture, as well as Spartan ideals and practices (elite men had to live in military housing until they were 30?)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mark Levinson, ‘The Economist Guide to Financial Markets, 7th Edition’ (Profile Books Ltd)

Easing into this at the moment. Reads like a textbook, but definitely the kind of thing I was after. Would have liked Levinson to contextualise the markets further with more real-life examples, however.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mark Twain, ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (Penguin)

One of the quintessential American novels. Read this a few years ago and loved it. It’s a struggle to get-to-grips with the character’s vernacular initially, but after a chapter or two you get the hang of it. In fact, the variations in vernacular become a real highlight.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Reading Log


We are now three quarters of the way through the disaster that is 2020 – only three more months to grind out – and to mark the occasion I thought I’d do a log of everything I’ve read so far this year.

I appreciate that it would have made more sense to do this 6 months into the year, but I’ve missed the boat and had some spare time last night, so quickly tallied up the texts on excel, dividing into fiction and non-fiction categories.

It was surprising to see that I’d read almost as many fiction texts as non-fiction texts (13 vs. 15). Since graduating with an English Literature degree, my natural inclination has been to drift towards historical/geopolitical books – a kind of sub-conscious rebellion against all the fiction I consumed in my three years in Manchester. That said, it seems I’m still partial to the odd novel.

I suppose part of the reason why I feel like I have always got a non-fiction book in my hand is because they invariably seem to be longer. Whereas I can get through a novel in 3-4 days, a 700-page historical text can take 2-3 weeks.


Reading List 2020

Fiction

  1. Mikhail Bulgakov, ‘The Master and Margarita’
  2. Albert Camus, ‘The Outsider’
  3. Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’
  4. Chuck Palahniuk, ‘Fight Club’
  5. David Foster Wallace, ‘Infinite Jest’
  6. Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’
  7. Ian McEwan, ‘Machines Like Me’
  8. John Steinbeck, ‘Cannery Row’
  9. Julian Barnes, ‘England, England’
  10. Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’
  11. Patrick Hamilton, ‘Hangover Square’
  12. Salman Rushdie, ‘Quichotte’
  13. Virginia Woolf, ‘To the Lighthouse’

Non-Fiction

  1. Alex Ferguson, ‘My Autobiography’
  2. Andy Malsen, ‘Write to Sell: The Ultimate Guide to Great Copywriting’
  3. Chris Wickham, ‘Medieval Europe’
  4. Eugene Rogan, ‘The Arabs: A History’
  5. John Romer, ‘A History of Ancient Egypt’
  6. Marc Morris, ‘The Norman Conquest’
  7. Micheal Atherton, ‘Atherton’s Ashes’
  8. Paul Strathen, ‘The Medici’
  9. Reni-Eddo Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
  10. Simon Jenkins, ‘A Short History of England’
  11. Thomas Williams, ‘Viking Britain: A History’
  12. Tom Holland, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’
  13. Tom Holland, ‘Millenium’
  14. Tom Holland, ‘Persian Fire’
  15. Uwe Schutte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

In terms of what’s up next… Judith Herrin’s new book, Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, is certainly on my reading list, and so too is Maggie O’Farell’s period tale, Hamnet. Sport-wise, Cricket 2.0 by Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde has been causing a bit of a storm, so I will try and get my hands on that.


Salman Rushdie, ‘Quichotte’ Review

Salman Rushdie’s post-modern take on Miguel de Cervantes’ 16th century classic, Don Quixote, is comic, calculated and poignant in equal measures. It nods to the original but paradoxically remains distinctively modern, with the issues affecting contemporary US society taking centre stage: the opioid crisis, consumerism, pharmaceutical corruption and racism.

It is also a tour-de-force of pop culture, literary allusions and genre. Cultural references adorn nearly every page: from Alice in Wonderland to Oprah, American Idol and Madonna, Sonny Liston and Elvis. Through the main character Quichotte – a fictional creation of failed spy thriller writer, Sam Duchamp – Rushdie satirises America’s infatuation with junk culture and laments its damaging effect on the public psyche. A travelling salesman, Quichotte – formerly Ismail Smile – spends long hours watching reality TV in cheap hotels, falls in love with chat-show host, Salma R, and sets out on a long road-trip quest to purify himself before uniting with his ‘beloved’. Along the way, he dreams up an imaginary son, Sancho, battles mastodons, experiences small-town xenophobia and confronts his forgotten past. 

As aforementioned, Quichotte is a story within a story; a few chapters in the reader is introduced to Sam, who, disillusioned with his literary output, is attempting to write his magnus opus. Yet we are also given the perspective of Sancho, Salma R and Sam’s sister, just to confuse things further. While the layered structure appears quite disjointed in the first half of the novel, the second seems to work considerably better. The clear demarcation between author-character becomes increasingly distorted, and we begin to question what is fact and what is fiction: arguably one of meta-fiction key aims. As Rushdie settles in to his groove the connections between Sam and Quichotte’s worlds appear ever closer. 

“AS I PLAN MY QUEST,” Quichotte said, drinking from a can of ginger ale, “I ponder the contemporary period as well as the classical. And by the contemporary I mean, of course, The Bachelorette”.

For me, the text deliberated effectively on the connection between author and their output, and recalled memories of studying Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory in university. Rushdie’s interest in how myth permeates society and the boundary between fiction/non-fiction makes Quichotte a topical work in the post-truth world. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’

‘“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”’ – that’s the fundamental idea informing Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize winning work The Sense of an Ending. In one sense, the whole text is a meditation on memory and its shortcomings. Memories are subjective, they get remoulded and repurposed over time, Barnes contends. 

I spent a lot of time trying to summarise the plot in a short and concise manner, but really struggled – apologies for the elongated synopsis below. The text is divided into two sections (1 & 2) and told from the (unreliable) first-person perspective of Tony Webster. In the first section, Tony recounts his formative years. We are introduced to his friends (Colin, Alex and most importantly, Adrian) and their shared years at secondary school, as well as Veronica, his girlfriend at the University of Bristol, whose family house he visits during a summer break. After breaking up with Veronica, Tony soon finds out that she has become romantically interested with his school friend, Adrian. He sends an angry letter to her and breaks contact. The section ends with Tony returning home from travelling in America after university, where he finds out that Adrian has committed suicide. In the second section Tony, now in old age, is prompted to look back into his past and re-examine his imperfect memories. 

Although I found the pacing of the novel quite slow at times in the second section, the climax was absorbing and tense. The final revelations force the reader to reconsider Tony’s narrative in a whole new light, become a literary detective and piece together the various clues amongst the faded memories. I’m trying to comment without revealing any major spoilers, but a quote from a review by The iIndependent captures the mood well: ‘the concluding scenes grip like a thriller – a whodunnit of memory and morality’. It is to Barnes credit that we initially read Tony as a genuine, average – if not emotional protagonist, with Veronica the unstable and calculating antithesis. But memories are subjective, and once the repressed past surfaces, we draw closer to the causes of Adrian’s suicide and Veronica’s anxieties – Tony has a part to play in both. 

Sexuality is another major theme in the novel. Tony describes his clique of friends as ‘sex-hungry’, and the metaphor of the ‘holding-pen’, from which they are ‘waiting to be released’, denotes their desire for sexual, as well as social, liberation. Throughout the first section, Tony’s disdain towards Veronica is centred around her rejection of sex. Later, it is implied that Sarah’s (Veronica’s mother) sexual transgressions have stunted her daughter’s psychological growth. Issues in the private, sexual sphere repeatedly spill out into the public world and cause great pain, affecting both filial and romantic relationships. 

The Sense of an Ending is dramatically different in tone, style and register to England, England, the only other Barnes novel I’ve read – this attests to authorial scope and imagination. The real achievement of The Sense of an Ending is that it offers no concrete ending. Upon completion, it demands to be re-read and analysed further. This process mimics the text’s plot, in which Tony must confront and scrutinise his murky past from a new perspective, peeling away the layers of artificiality he has constructed in his head.