Maitland, Karen. The Owl Killers.
I read this long, dense novel quickly. The events take place in 1321 in a small English village, and the author's historic detail reminded me strongly of information in The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly. Kelly describes some of the brutishness of life and some of the events that preceded the arrival of the plague. I took the following passage from my review of The Great Mortality last year:
An especially interesting portion of the book, however, was the evidence of the strange and unusual environmental and ecological changes and events that frequently preceded outbreaks of the plague. Earthquakes, unprecedented rains, drought, tropical cyclones, and other climactic changes can influence rodent populations and locations. These events can also cause famine among human populations, weakening their resistance to disease.
I wish I'd included more of the information that Kelly relayed about life during this period before the plague arrived in England, but this is an area that Maitland has researched in great detail. Her depiction of medieval life is one of the strengths of her novel. She has included many of the events in the first half of the 13th century that reduced the standard of living and general health of the population--from actions of monarchs, to Church policies, to outbreaks of anthrax-- as well as climactic changes that resulted in failed crops.
Maitland's attention to historic detail is so interwoven in the resulting personalities of the characters that setting becomes a character in itself.
A historic detail that plays a crucial role in the story is the Beguine, "a member of a lay sisterhood (one of several founded in the Netherlands in the 12th and 13th centuries); though not taking religious vows the sisters followed an austere life."
Beguinage Communities were made up of women who chose a semi-cloistered life rather than marriage or religious vows and were free to leave at any time. The Beguines were highly religious, supported themselves, founded schools and hospitals, and appear to have been remarkably successful where they were protected. This independence upset the status quo, however, and the women often encountered hysterical (smile) responses from both locals and the Church that resulted in violence and charges of heresy.
OK -- what was the novel about? I could go on and on about the historical accuracy and interesting historic information, yet I stall in discussion of plot.
A Beguine community is founded near the village of Ulewic, and despite the charity and medical care offered by the Beguines, they are viewed with suspicion and animosity. The village is dominated by a sinister group of individuals called the Owl Masters, who keep their identities secret and make most of the important decisions involving the villagers. When the ancient myth of the Owlman, a terrible and violent pagan creature, resurfaces, the conflict between the Beguines and the locals intensifies as the Owl Masters determine to force the women out.
The men in the novel, with the exceptions of Ralph and a Friar, are at best easily influenced, greedy, and/or hypocritical, and at worst hypocritical, violent, and/or evil. Hypocrisy rules. Violence, a close second.
I really liked the Beguines, whose personalities were well-developed and varied. Their attempts to carry out their missions of serving God and humanity in their different roles were the founding strength of the novel. All had flaws, but Maitland did an excellent job of bringing them to life, and they are just about the only positive force in this dark novel.
At some point, I felt the novel had sort of changed course, and I didn't find the conclusion nearly as satisfying as I'd hoped. How to explain? Perhaps, for me, the supernatural aspect was less pleasing than if it had been definitively psychological, and I can't say more without giving too much away.
It was a compelling read.
Fiction. Historical/Supernatural. 2009. 495 pages + historical notes and glossary.