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by Karen Maitland
Delacorte, October 2008
480 pages
ISBN: 0385341695

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Midsummer's Day, 1348, "the day on which humans and beasts alike became the wager in a divine game." The day, in short, that the Plague came to Melcombe, Dorset, England. A day on which the world changed. It is also the day that the narrator of this novel first encounters the strange child, Narigorm, fey, almost albino, distinctly strange, teller of fortunes and caster of spells. Their two fates will be entwined thereafter.

The narrator is Camelot, a seller of spurious relics, and nowhere near as respectable even as Chaucer's Pardoner. He is missing an eye and bears the scars of a horrific wound that he sometimes claims he received defence of one of his relics. Gradually, as the plague begins its inexorable spread, he becomes the centre of a company of strangers, all, like him, marginal members of society and all seeking to flee from the sickness, la morte bleue. They head inland and ever north, escaping contagion largely by avoiding any association with the possibly infectious.

They are a motley crew indeed. A pair of wandering minstrels from Venice; a magician named Zophiel, angry, sarcastic, judgmental, but terrified of something and fiercely protective of the smelly mermaid foetus he keeps locked in a case; a wise-woman, Pleasance, skilled midwife and healer, but mysteriously on the road; the young lovers Osmond, a painter and his pregnant bride Adela; and Cygnus, the swan boy with one normal arm and a swan's wing for the other.

Even before the plague, all of these were itinerants and all are concealing something, a secret sin or shame that will be revealed in the course of their travels. And one by one, they die, though not of the death they flee. When they do come to the end of the road, the conclusion is a shocker.

It is difficult to write about this novel without reference to Ariana Franklin's MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH, which it far outshines. Generally speaking, commercially successful historical fiction has an element of wish-fulfilment about it. In the bad old days, this used to take the form of tight-lacing, gorgeous dresses, and saturnine heroes; lately, the spunky, independent heroine has come to prominence, pursuing an essentially "modern" career in a picturesque period. But what is really absent from both these modes is a genuine sense of period. In Franklin's case, she appears to believe that little changed between 1171, the date of her story, and the time of Chaucer, more than two hundred years later.

Lots did, of course. One of the chief agents of change was the Black Death, which in two years killed between 30% and 40% of the population. With no really viable explanation, let alone cure, for the pestilence, people turned to religion, superstition, magic, and charms for protection. Scapegoats were sought, most particularly the Jews, even if they'd been expelled from England fifty years before and despite the papal declaration that they were innocent in this regard. Maitland captures what it might have been like to live through such a time and to confront a society in which everything had utterly changed. In the absence of a live priest one could confess one's sins to anyone, "even a woman."

COMPANY OF LIARS is engrossing, but it hardly offers a pleasant escape from present woes. That plague year was also the wettest in England and sometimes one feels one is on the Somme in 1915; certainly the death toll is comparable. It takes the company rather a long time to get from Dorset to the Fens and there is little along the road to lighten the atmosphere. Still, the book feels right and we do not get the sense that historical factoids have been introduced to provide gravity. It is being compared to a number of other novels of similar subject (even the dread Dan Brown has been mentioned!), but one that has not cropped up is Barry Unsworth's MORALITY PLAY, one of the best, and perhaps most underrated medieval mysteries of them all, which likewise seizes on a pivotal historic moment and shapes a mystery to illuminate it.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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