22 January, 2014

'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland

'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland
Hey everyone, happy 2014! It's good to be back. I hope all of your holidays were merry and bright and full of good books. I've missed blogging-- to be fair, I didn't end up reading a whole lot in December that I could've blogged about anyway, but even still, it's good to be back in the saddle.

I'm really excited about this post, because I've been looking forward to reading (and reviewing) this book literally for months. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, whose back cover describes it as a reimagining of the Canterbury Tales.

Bear with me through a brief history lesson, which I'll start with a confession: my focus in college was Old and Middle English literature. And I am a giant, embarrassing, drooling Chaucer fangirl. I'm not only talking about the one played by Paul Bettany, either. Chaucer was the man. He was one of the first writers to decide that he'd had enough of this "real literature is only written in French and Latin" crap, and wrote in the vernacular that actual regular English people spoke on a daily basis. He's credited with starting the legitimizing of English as a language good for anything besides singing dirty songs in bars or figuring out how many bales of wheat to trade for a sheep.

While he wrote a bunch of other works, he's most famous for the Tales, which live at the crossroads of sociopolitical commentary and self-insertionist fanfic. The narrator of the Tales is a guy named (you guessed it) Chaucer, and though the poet himself isn't on record as ever deciding to go on a pilgrimage, he used his vast experience of people from all walks of life to create a bunch of believable characters-- archetypes if you will, of the sorts of people that most English people would know-- a nun, a priest, a miller, an innkeeper, et cetera. Though they came from all occupations and classes, the pilgrims all thought that going on this holy road trip would absolve them of their sins. In some cases, Chaucer found this ironic and hilarious; in others, noble and commendable. It all depended on the person. Further setting the Tales apart from most literature of the time, there's no one main hero in this story, just regular people, and Chaucer immortalized every one of them, quirks, warts, farts, and all.

So-- back to 2013, and Company of Liars. The narrator of the book is called Camelot, not a name but a title, held by an old scarred man who sells useless trinkets claiming them to be holy relics. Rumors of the pestilence (the early name for the Black Death) have been circulating, and Camelot is trying to make it to a shrine to spend the winter in. Unfortunately for him, he keeps meeting people who he feels compelled to allow to join him, for their safety as well as his own-- a young couple expecting a baby, an albino child who reads the future in runes, a midwife, a musician and his apprentice, a one-armed storyteller, and a sideshow operator with a wagon full of marvels.

As the title of the book would suggest, all of these people are liars. And between the incessant downpour, the lack of food, the growing stories about the plague, and the growing tensions between various members of the group, it becomes clear pretty early on that something's going to go FUBAR in this medieval station wagon-- the only question is when. The fact that there's a lone wolf that seems to be following their caravan-- hunting them, even-- only adds to the fear. Then, one by one, the members of their company start dying in increasingly gruesome ways.

This is the point at which it becomes clear, both to our narrator Camelot and to the reader, that whatever is preying on the travelers (be it wolf or human) isn't doing so at random-- that rather than being absolved of their sins as Chaucer's pilgrims hoped for, they're being punished for them instead.

This is the part where we get spoilery, so if you want to remain in the dark about whodunit, now's the time to stop reading.

Still with me? Okay, good. Because we're going to have a chat, you and me, about creepy children.

Nope, this town is totally normal.
The creepy kid trope (don't click that) is often used as a mini deus ex machina, not to solve the problems of a particular story, but to expose them. The idea of a child that knows too much is unsettling-- a child that can think like an adult, and worse, perpetrate evil or horrifying acts like an adult, is one of the creepiest there is. Even if the creepy kid's job is just to stand by and make ominous pronouncements about what's going to happen, it's still unsettling. Kids are supposed to be innocent, and when faced with one who isn't, it jolts us out of our comfort zone faster than you can say Linda Blair.

So if your book contains an albino 12-year-old with a long white rat's nest of hair and pale eyes who barely talks except to read runes and make cryptic statements about the people around her, I just go into it assuming she's one early bedtime away from going Lizzie Borden on everyone around her. Add to that the fact that the pregnant lady gives her a doll and she scratches its face off with a knife because she doesn't like it looking at her, and that she's crazy good at hunting but takes ages to actually kill her prey because she likes watching the animals struggle? RED ALERT EVERYONE, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

So while I may have called it pretty early on that Narigorm (which is a near-anagram for guess which Celtic goddess whose abilities include foretelling the means of a person's death?) was behind the wolf hunting and shredding Camelot's companions, no one in the book seems to figure it out, even as the body count rises.

Which is kind of the point, if you think about it. The best and scariest killers are the ones who do their dirty work right under others' noses and get away without suspicion (hello, Doctor Lecter). And who would suspect a child of murder? As Camelot finds out to his great chagrin, people don't want to even consider the possibility, even when it's standing there telling them in a sepulchral voice that the runes say someone's going to die less than 12 hours before one of their group turns up stabbed to death with his man-bits torn off.

I should also mention this book is not for people who are squeamish about blood.

Anyway-- one of the funniest parts of the Canterbury Tales is how Chaucer exposes the divide (in some cases, the chasm) between how the pilgrims think of themselves, and what their actions actually say about them. also In Company of Liars this theme is just as important, but it's used for horror, not humor. Each of the people in the group either has secrets of their own or is hiding someone else's, or both. They have a facade that they're desperately trying to maintain, and the growing dread that mounts with each chapter mirrors the characters' growing realization that those secrets won't stay buried for long. So reading Company of Liars is like traveling this double spiral of horror-- not only the realization that Narigorm is a practiced murderer who assembled this company on purpose to torment them, but that no one in is safe while they're with her.

It seems strange to say about a book about a road trip, but Narigorm is the only thing that moves the plot along. Without her, the travelers would be content to keep living their lies, and would probably have finished their journey in ignorant peace, but she is always nudging them toward exposure. And while she as a character may be motivated to kill, her function in the story is to bring about that unearthing of the truth. She reveals how fucked up each one of these people is-- proves to them that the truth cannot stay hidden no matter how desperately they wish it-- and then punishes them for their sins.

Strangely, she fulfills the same function for the book's travelers as the Narrator does in the Canterbury Tales. In this perverted, horrific reimagining of the Tales, Narigorm plays the part of Chaucer, pulling back the veil on the secret lives of the people around her and meting out retribution-- not by immortalizing their flaws in fiction, but by reminding them how worthless their lies, and their lives, really are.

This makes the book sound bleak, but for all that it hasn't got a happy ending for almost any of its characters, I found it very satisfying. Maitland has a beautiful writing style and she paints emotion and atmosphere with a vivid brush. I was totally captivated by this story; each chapter was something to savor and linger over, and I was thoroughly sorry to turn the last page.

You can buy Company of Liars on Amazon, and read my reviews crossposted to Goodreads