September 2020 – Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
Back in June, when one of our readers selected Company of Liars as the September novel for Zion’s Book Club, she said we would need the summer break to digest it. Furthermore, it was loosely based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and set in 1345 during the Black Death in Europe. Many, if not all, of us had hazy memories of attempting to read Chaucer’s work during high school, and those memories consisted mostly of archaic, medieval language that defied our best efforts to understand enough for a passing grade on the test. Suffice it to say the Chaucer reference was not a selling point. Neither was the medieval time period. However, being currently in the middle of a Covid-19 pandemic did hint at interesting parallels with the Middle Ages’ plague. So, we acquired copies of Ms. Maitland’s work and embarked on a journey back in time.
After a slow start, we found ourselves engrossed in the story of a motley group of people trying to outrun the Black Death as it made its way across Britain. While many of our readers felt the book was extremely long, Ms. Maitland proved a master at writing a very readable story, creating an environment of wet, gray gloom (it rained every day for well over six months – we feel down after three days of rain!) infected with fear and populated by singular characters. She included historical notes and a glossary in the back of the book so that unfamiliar terms could be quickly defined and placed in context, and our readers made use of that feature. With great character development, she introduced people on the run, hiding secrets that could result in death even before the sickness enveloped them. A deformed peddler of supposed holy relics toting a preserved mermaid, a fleeing priest hoarding a treasure, a young musician and his older mentor, a man with a wing for an arm and a tongue for stories, an expectant young couple hiding more than a pregnancy, a healer condemned by ethnicity, and a child imbued with evil who read runes to tell fortunes and psychologically terrorize – with great skill, Ms. Maitland gradually revealed their hopes, pleas, and secrets as they witnessed the best and worst of people in the towns through which they passed. The customs and beliefs of medieval England were vividly on display; the Pope and Catholic Church owned what the King did not, and both were corrupt. From our 21st century viewpoint, superstition reigned supreme, and it was jarring to see a custom like the Cripples’ Wedding where two physically or mentally impaired people were wed and publicly consummated the marriage in an effort to turn the plague away from a town. The medical men of the time wore birds’ masks with long noses where they hid smelling salts and flowers to keep the stench and plague at bay – their version of social distancing.
It was fascinating to note the influence of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans in this novel, and a bit disconcerting to see lifestyles portrayed that are more familiar to current readers. In the 1300’s, they would have resulted in swift executions. But this just added to the strange amalgam that was this novel. The very journey they were on stretched the incredulity of a few readers; the Middle Ages in Britain held a pre-literate population, few roads, no maps, and local dialects that could not be easily understood by people from outside a small area. When communication could be maintained, news was a world of hearsay and torture was commonplace. People married young because they only lived to their 40’s. A mixed group thrown together, trying to overcome the mud and cold, developed cliques and revealed bigotry. Some characters met nasty ends, and the creepy, evil character of Narigorm, the rune reader, all but demanded one. Readers suspected her of possibly pushing the healer to her death, and Narigorm’s re-emergence at the end of the novel gave the book creds in the horror genre.
However, this book also had relevant elements for our readers – as one noted (and it could be viewed in either a positive or negative light), human nature doesn’t change. Like all of us, the characters were searching for a place to call home. Not so much a place to go back to, but rather as one said, “. . . the place where you seek rebirth.” Even when we fumbled with their language, we understood their feelings and were profoundly grateful to be living in the 21st century, even with Covid-19.
The depth of the author’s research was very evident, and her ability to throw a twist into the plot was unsurpassed. Many readers missed the clues along the way and were very surprised to have a character’s identity change revealed at the end of the story. But in their defense, we had to maneuver through a ton of lies told very credibly. After seeing the misery so aptly portrayed, it did not surprise us that there was a peasants’ revolt in the mid-1300’s followed by another plague in the 1500’s. A reader opined that when the just and unjust (substitute religious and sinners) were equally affected by the pandemic, the Reformation emerged in response. Martin Luther assailed the walls of power and authority with demands for truth, and the world was forever changed. And our readers were also changed after reading this novel because, for many, it would never have been their choice. That is the delight of a book club where new stories and points of view open readers to different perspectives and history. Company of Liars earned two neutral votes, 4 knuckles, 5 one-thumb up votes, and 3 two-thumb up votes. On October 8th, we will discuss The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson.