Most recently, I finished Karen Maitland‘s Company of Liars: a novel of the plague (London: Penguin Books, 2008. ISBN 9780141031910). Her fourth medieval thriller (The Falcons of Fire and Ice has just been published, and I got from my public library this morning, much to my delight. But I am not allowed to start reading it until I have done my homework, i.e. this blog post.
And so to meet the Company of Liars, a group of people from a variety of backgrounds, each with their own secrets that they wish to keep, as they travel through England to escape the plague, and, as becomes gradually clear, something that could be far worse. Our meeting with the travellers is delayed by the prologue that you must remember as you reach the end of the book; you can decide for yourself where its events fits in a chronological narrative structure. The first we meet, in the second chapter, is the narrator, without a name at this point, and later called Camelot, which is his profession, camelot meaning peddlar. The story starts on the day the plague was said to begin, Midsummer 1348. The plague creates the story, a dark story of fear, without any real relief, of a group of outsiders at a time when everybody was seen as suspicious at best, as a real danger at worst. The characters form a company, mistrusting one another and being mistrusted by others, and tell their stories. The narrative structure of stories with in a story resembles Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, with Camelot taking Chaucer’s role of narrator, as well as Boccaccio’s Il Decamerone and the French Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, the latter two stories being explicitly referenced by Maitland. But in Maitland’s hands, each character has his or her own fears, to be hidden behind their story, only to be revealed in the darker, overwhelming arc.
I am finding it difficult to write a thorough review of the book; so much cannot be said to avoid ruining the plot. I recommend reading it, and then reading it again, to pay attention to the different stories and how they interweave. On my first reading, I followed the story, but revelled in the richness of the medieval detail. It was genuinely believed that Jews caused the Plague by poisoning the wells in the night, and the Inquisition hunted them down, whether they had converted or not.
This is a story of the Other, the outsider, with reference not only to the central company, but to those whom they meet along the way – cripples, lepers, wolves and werewolves, midwives, magicians, albinos, homosexuals, storytellers, Jews, witches, adulterers and the incestuous. Some of the suffering forced on some of these figures is brutual, in the form of Inquisitorial interrogation to rout out Jews, and the use of cripples in a barbaric practice called here the Cripples’ Wedding which was intended to ward off the plague from the village where the wedding occurred. Religious superstition is an important part of the book – Camelot’s livelihood is dependant upon such superstition, through the sale of saints’ relics. Having seen many such relics displayed in medieval churches on my summer holidays – a finger of a saint whose name I cannot now recall probably being my favourite – I’m fascinated by the medieval cults of saints in general, and several saints’ tales are referenced throughout the story. The best is the story of St Uncumber; I won’t link to it here, to encourage you to read the book, but if you do enjoy medieval saints tales, get thee to a library to borrow a copy of Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend (1275).
I did initially wish that some of the characters’ tales, most noticeably those of the female characters (especially Adela), had been more detailed. On reflection, however, I wonder if Maitland intended to show that for medieval women, they would not have had the richest or most eventful of lives unless something happened to change the balance of their world, i.e. the plague. They are strong characters in the immediate present of the main plot, as they fight to survive the plague and their adventures. Original medieval texts are similar – the best example that I can give is Aucassin et Nicolette (please note: the link goes to an English translation of the original 13th century French chantefable). Nicolette fights for her right to be with Aucassin, escapes her tower and travels all over the world to be reunited with him. At the end of the story, she removes her disguises and dresses in rich finery again, in preparation for his coming to her. Such an ending always makes me feel sad – her adventures are over, and her life as a French noblewoman is likely to end early through the dangers of childbirth. So the depiction of the female characters’ past is not an issue to me in Company of Liars.
Ultimately, this is a novel in which neither reader nor characters knows exactly what is truth and what is lies. The Plague changes all the rules, and the characters do what they can to guard their secrets, and, in some cases, to expose those of others. Alliances and trust are fleeting, and given that we are only really hearing the central plot from the perspective of one carrier, we cannot really be sure about the bias or lack thereof of the events as presented to us by Camelot. It is only apt that the ending is similarly uncertain – you never find out if what Camelot believed to be the final fate of the company is actually true, and the book ends before Camelot’s story does. The ending suits the story.
I chose this book from my local library, and have written an honest review. You can find out more about the various medieval elements of the tale on Karen Maitland’s official website.