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THE GALLOWS CURSE
by Karen Maitland
Michael Joseph, March 2011
576 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0718156358


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1210, fifteen-year-old Elena, a villein, was abruptly promoted from field hand to tiring maid to Lady Anne, widow of the lord of Gastmere manor, a post for which she would seem to be singularly unqualified. But, like pretty much everyone except the very highly-born, she has been trained never to question the dictates of her superiors,

The spring of 1210 was an edgy time in England. The King, John, was involved in an extended struggle over sovereignty with the Pope. To make his point Innocent III had placed England under an Interdict in1208, which closed the churches and denied most of the sacraments to the population. When John responded by seizing Church property and exiling or imprisoning some to the clergy, Innocent excommunicated him.

Much might be said about the public and political effects of this state of affairs, but Karen Maitland is interested in more individual concerns. For most, the Church had provided the only glimmer of hope in a world ruled by iron necessity. Born to a particular station in life, you were to remain in it, subject to the will or whim of your superiors, until you died. Then, perhaps, you might be rewarded (after a suitable stay in purgatory) with eternal bliss. If disease or danger threatened in life, then prayer and sacrifice might avert the peril. But if you were to die unconfessed and without the last rites, then eternal damnation awaited. And it was in this perilous state that the inhabitants of interdicted Britain believed themselves to be.

Thus they fell back on ancient charms and customs designed to ward off evil, on the inherited knowledge of herbs and plants possessed by wise women, and on curses, the chief weapon of the otherwise weaponless. Gytha, a "cunning woman," is a prime mover in this tale, though she largely operates off scene. But it is to her that Elena turns when, pregnant with her first child, she is tormented by nightmares in which she dashes the baby's head against a wall. A deal is struck between the two that is supposed to bring Elena relief but which in fact lands her in continuing danger, terror, and despair.

Through her ordeal, Elena is under the protection of Raffe, an Italian castrato now in the service of Lady Anne. Raffe was himself a sacrifice, as he lost his sex when his parents enlisted him in the local monastic choir, a futile loss as poor Raffe turned out to have no voice worth mentioning. He enlists the help of another marginal character, Mother Margot, madam of the best whorehouse in Norwich, who takes Elena in but who expects something from her in return. Arrayed against them are two brothers, Osburn and Hugh, installed by King John in the manor at Gastmere, dispossessing Lady Anne. They are monsters both, determined to impose their will as they please and unaware that they too are in the grip of a destiny they do not comprehend.

As she has done in her two previous novels, COMPANY OF LIARS and THE OWL KILLERS, Maitland places characters from the margins at the centre of her narrative. Raffe and Margot, a dwarf, are physically distinctive; Gwytha is feared for the power she may possess to curse and charm and thus lives outside the village; Elena is a fugitive, a suspected baby-killer. Lady Anne has been dispossessed of her lands at the death of her husband and her son. Yet as sympathetic as we may be to these for what they have suffered, they demonstrate the sad truth that suffering does not necessarily ennoble. It may warp the psyche and destroy the generosity of spirit necessary to be genuinely good.

Maitland is careful to remind the reader that the excesses and horrors encountered in the course of the book are not products simply of a more primitive time. She quotes Proust to the effect that our future "is the shadow that our past throws in front of us," and the Middle Ages casts a long shadow indeed. Yet she never makes these characters think like contemporary men and women. They are bound by their own times as we are bound by ours. We have, however, the good fortune to be able to look back at theirs through the medium of this marvellous historical recreation of a time profoundly different from our own and yet terribly similar as well.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, May 2011

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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