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by Karen Maitland
Delacorte, September 2009
528 pages
ISBN: 0385341709

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The year 1321 was not a good time to live in a small Norfolk village at the back end of beyond. Of course, it's hard to think of just what year was a good one in that century, but at that particular moment, the climate was changing from the relatively pleasant conditions that had prevailed for centuries to the opening years of the Little Ice Age, marked by unseasonably cold summers, excessive rainfall, failed crops, and general misery. Certainly things were about to get worse in a couple of decades, when the Plague would make the first of its forays in England and ultimately dispatch a substantial portion of the population. But the miserable villagers of Ulewic, the fictional Norfolk village where they scratched out a marginal existence, were at least spared that foreknowledge.

As it was, they had enough on their plates. The Church, here represented by weak, terrified Father Ulfrid, exiled to this backwater for sexual indiscretion, views the parishioners as a useful source of income, charging them annual tithes and a variety of fees to perform religious rites, like burial, marriage, and baptism. The village runs on a chain of blackmail, with the priest threatening the villagers with excommunication and presumptive eternal damnation if they do not pay up. In turn Ulfrid is being blackmailed by the manor steward, who will expose the priest's more recent sexual carryings-on if he doesn't do as he is told. Finally and most sinister of all is the mysterious cult called the Owl Masters, harking back to a pre-Christian age, which enforces its own moral code through horrific punishments of all who transgress.

Into this morass of fear and superstition have come a band of women from Bruges, beguines, led by a woman, Servant Martha, to take up residence on land bequeathed them to found a beguinage, a place of safety for women and children, like those on the Continent. They have been tolerated though not embraced for several years, but once the local lord forces them to shelter his disgraced daughter, that delicate balance is shattered and things fall apart.

THE OWL KILLERS is an enormously interesting novel. In the first place, surprisingly little has been written about the beguines, groups of lay women who in the 12th century came together in communities, to lead lives dedicated to charity, scholarship, and relative independence, a movement that lasted into the 20th century.

But Maitland is not merely shedding some light on a relatively neglected aspect of European history, useful though that might be. The fully-realized women in this book are actors in a religious and political struggle that resonates to the present moment. By their very existence, the beguines are a challenge to the authority of both Church and State, though they have not set out to do very much more than develop an autonomous way of life that expresses their own religious convictions. The women themselves, moreover, are very far from perfect and their failures, especially those of their leader, Servant Martha, contribute much to the disaster that overtakes them. Still, we want them to survive in their modest and commendable life and fear that the forces arrayed against them will be too much to withstand.

Too frequently when it comes to the role of women, historical fiction imposes a modern sensibility on the past to seize upon and magnify the relatively rare exceptions to the common female fate. Writers like Sarah Dunant and now Karen Maitland know full well that sometimes for women in the past, quietly following their own path was sufficiently heroic and sufficiently hard.

Maitland's previous medieval thriller. COMPANY OF LIARS, set about twenty years later than this, was a brilliant and original take on Chaucer's pilgrims. THE OWL KILLERS is even better. Her next reportedly takes place during the reign of King John and I am really looking forward to stepping ever further back in time in Maitland's company.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, October 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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