Friday, 27 December 2013

169/111 - The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

This book was assigned to me by my book club, which I'm quite pleased by as I would probably never normally read a book like this as I'm not really into historical fiction of any sort, but it's good not to pigeonhole myself I guess. I was also pretty intimidated by the size of this book - on my iPhone this was over 2000 pages long, which was pretty hefty. Since it was something I don't normally read, I put off starting it for ages and ages as there was other stuff I needed to do which seemed more important than committing to 2000 pages of something that I might not enjoy. Then I remembered that I would be letting downy fellow book club-ees if I didn't read this in time, so I knuckled down and got to the task.

I ended up really enjoying the book. It's set in the Middle Ages of England, in a desolate village called Ulewic. It follows the narrative voices of several different characters; a small girl, a priest, a teenage girl who has been cast out by her father, and the head of a new beguinage. What on earth is a beguinage? Glad you asked. It turns out that these are sort of similar to nunneries, in that they are communes of women of a religious nature, however the women do not take vows and are free to come and go as they please, although they do have rules and duties to abide by while they are there. There are loads of these in Belgium, and they tried to start some up in England with little success, as they were seen as witches or defying the Church in some way.

The story is about how this order of powerful men known as the Owl Masters try to take control of the village through fear, and how the different groups of people try to stand up to them in different ways. I really liked the story and it kept my interest up the whole way through, and I think the fact that it had so much historical information in it meant that I was also doing some learning without really realising (sneaky books!) which was really cool.

A couple of bits I didn't like so much were the narratives of Beatrice and Father Ulfrid. I found both of them to be so unreasonable and blind as to be unbelieveable. Beatrice has a grudge against Osmanna because she kills her unborn child, and she resents this deeply because she's unable to have children of her own, however I found the level of hatred a little pantomime-ish. Same with Father Ulfrid, who is so weak and spineless, and also spiteful. I found both of these characters to be as little two-dimensional and not very interesting to read. However the others made up for it, I think.

I was also confused by some of the names, as there was a male character called Hilary, which is semi-normal but there was also a female character called Andrew, which was odd but made me laugh. I also really enjoyed the fact that all the women in the beguinage were called Martha, which reminded me of The Handmaid's Tale and made me feel super clever.

I'm kind of curious as to what it would be like to live in a place like this - not in the time, obviously, I like my creature comforts like central heating and modern medicine, but I mean more like giving up your life to go and live as part of a religious order and doing nothing but praying and fulfilling your duties. I imagine that it might be quite relaxing for a bit but that it might become dull eventually, just like most things. In my naïveté I imagine myself sitting around reading books for a lot of the time and then maybe doing some sweeping and tending some goats. It's probably not much like that.

So in all, I enjoyed this a lot. Perhaps I'll have to give historical novels more of a chance in future, and as I'd really like to read some Hilary Mantel, that could work out quite well for me.

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