When I first started reading (or rather, listening to—it was an audio book) Karen Maitland’s Company of Liars, I immediately knew that it was going to be a five star rating. I knew it like a bird knows to sing at the butt-crack of dawn, or a dog knows to piss on every free-standing structure it sees. It was instinctual. I knew it in my bones. The storytelling was amazing. The historical detail was vivid and engrossing. The characters were deep, realistic, and engaging. And oh my God—the slowly mounting dread that builds and builds like a tsunami, looming higher and higher until it seems poised on the brink of oblivion—it was phenomenal.
Turns out my instincts could use some calibration. It was the ending, you know. The ending was what screwed it for me and relegated this tale to four-star territory. You’d think, given all that world-class build-up, there would have been a little more of a bang at the end—something subtle and sublime and earth-shattering all at the same time. Instead we got a whimper. Oh, it wasn’t bad. It was O.K., in an uninspired-80s-horror-movie-ish sort of way. It simply didn’t live up to the billing, if you know what I mean.
And if you don’t know what I mean, I’ll do my best to explain—but later. First let me tell you a little a bit of what the book is about. That might come in handy, huh?
Company of Liars is a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales set in
during the year 1348. This is the year
that the Great Pestilence, what we now know as the Black Death, arrived on
shores. What resulted can only be
described as chaos. The institutions
that formed the bedrock of medieval society—the monarchy and the Church—were powerless
to stop the pestilence. Societal and
religious norms crumbled in the face of it.
Parents fled their homes, abandoning their own children as they tried to
escape the sickness. Jews and other
minorities were executed en masse as people tried in desperation to find a
scapegoat, something to make them feel they had still had the power over their
own lives. There were so many dead that
the Pope decreed that priests no longer need perform the last rights over the
dead—anyone could do it. And on top of
it all, 1348 saw torrential rains that lasted for months. Roads became impassable, rivers flooded, and
crops rotted in the fields, stressing an already dwindling food supply to the
breaking point. To someone living at
that time, it truly must have looked like the end of the world. England
Trying to survive this morass of death and chaos are nine companions, the “Company of Liars” of the title. Thrust together by circumstance rather than choice, they limp northward toward the Scottish highlands, where they hope to escape the pestilence. The narrator is an elderly Camelot (a traveling salesmen of fake relics and dubious homeopathic remedies) with a gnarly scar on his face and only one eye. He’s never given a proper name, but he eventually becomes the reluctant leader of the bunch, trying (often in vain) to keep the peace and hold their little band together. Rodrigo and Jofre are a pair of minstrels from
recently left the employ of an English Lord.
Zophiel is a traveling magician, and with him he lugs along a set of mysterious
boxes that he guards with jealous ferocity.
Adela and Osmond are a young couple with their first child on the way,
and Pleasance is a shy and dark-complexioned midwife/healer. Finally, there’s Narigorm—a pale twelve
year-old girl with snow-white hair and a gift for reading the future in the
runes (a pagan practice of Norse/Germanic origin used for casting sendings and
reading the future). Her physical
appearance is strange, but even stranger is her personality—aloof, distant, and
just off. Each of the nine has their own flaws, and
more than enough conflict arises among them due to these foibles, but all are
also hiding secrets. In effect, they’re
all liars in one way or another. Vienna
And that, (as you might surmise from the title), is the main theme of the book—that we’re all liars in one form or another and that those lies will eventually be laid bare. But Maitland takes it a step further than that. Her characters tell other self-encapsulated tales at different portions in the book, fireside stories meant to entertain or delight or distract their fellow travelers. To complicate matters, Maitland throws a mildly unreliable narrator into the mix and muddles things up even more. In the process she creates a type of metafiction—that is, fiction within fiction. Or to put it more plainly (and to draw upon Stephen Zimmer’s recent guest post) it’s a bunch of lies within lies. It’s not real. It’s fantasy dressed up in the semblance of reality, with details and characters and places designed to convince the reader of the plausibility—nay, the very truth—of the lie. Part of the magic of fiction is that a bunch of lies and false truths can be dressed up in the semblance of reality, spun by a masterful hand, and become real in our minds and our imaginations. Even though we know it’s a fantasy, a good storyteller can make us emotionally invest ourselves in what we intrinsically know to be a lie.
Err, uh, sorry about that. I got all English-major-y there. Ahem. Moving on…
Camelot begins the novel alone, but gradually (and begrudgingly) starts picking up companions as the story progresses. They search for food as they travel, relying upon each other and their varied talents for survival. But when the company reaches nine members total, they start dying off one by one, always from different causes, and never from the pestilence itself. A howling wolf stalks them through the nights, like a manifestation of death itself nipping at their heels. Eventually, though, they come to realize that it’s not just as if something is stalking. Something really is stalking them, though whether the threat is from within or without their group is not so clear.
The historical detail Maitland incorporates into her novel is phenomenal. I’m no medieval scholar, but I’ve read enough texts on the subject to know the real deal, and this is it. I found especially intriguing the way she depicted the religious dichotomy that existed with medieval populace, with one foot in Christian doctrine and the other in pagan mysticism and superstition. Maitland also doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable aspects of the historical record. There are multiple scenes dealing with persecutions of Jews, corruption of government and church officials, a cruel justice system, and the grossly disturbing manner in which the mentally and physically handicapped were treated. People at the time believed that any mental or physical defect was the physical manifestation of some sin of the parents, whether it be gluttony or incest or fornicating with a demon (I kid you not), and as such the handicapped were treated as the scum of the earth. Early on in the book, Maitland depicts a very real and very disturbing medieval tradition called the “Cripples’ Wedding” in which two village cripples are forcibly married off to each other and made to consummate their “marriage” in the village graveyard. The town throws a huge party and gives presents to the bride and groom as a charm against sickness or pestilence. Makes all the sense in the world, right?
I’ve read other reviews in which the reviewers stated they felt like they were being beaten over the head with how shitty life is for the characters. But in my opinion, readers should be beaten over the head with it. Really, what was medieval life but a shit-tastic shit sandwich? I mean, the life expectancy at birth was a whopping 30 years (if you take into account the infant mortality rate). By medieval standards, I’m a freakin’ old man. If you write an authentic historical fiction novel set in the medieval period, the characters’ lives should suck. It’s not going to be all jousting, merry men, and pastoral landscapes. That’s part of the power of historical fiction, being able to experience the horror and hardship of a previous era from safely on the other side of the fourth wall.
In many respects, Company of Liars is almost historical post-apocalyptic fiction. If there were any real apocalypse in history, the Black Death would certainly qualify. What else would you call it when 50% of a continent’s population dies and governmental and religious authorities are turned on their head? To many people in that era, it literally seemed like the world was ending—and in many ways, it was. The characters in Company of Liars have to contend with an inhospitable environment (the rain-drenched landscape with no food to be found), their fellow survivors (other people trying to escape the plague), the cause of the apocalypse (the plague itself) and a supernatural element as well (the unseen wolf nipping at their heels). It’s got everything necessary for a good post-apocalyptic yarn, and Maitland has the chops to pull it off with chilling style.
That’s why, when I got to the end of this marvelously plotted and thrillingly detailed novel, I felt like a kid who just got a lump of coal in his stocking on Christmas morning. But before we get into the how and the why of my epic disappointment, let me first throw up a big ‘ole SPOILER warning for all you folks out there who might want to read this ‘un yourself. So with that in mind, here’s the deal.
The creepy little girl did it. Surprised? Yeah, me neither. But that wasn’t what was so anti-climactic about the ending. To explain, let me set the stage for you. So after four members of the company have died in various ways, Camelot puts two and two together and figures out that it’s actually Narigorm manipulating the party into killing each other, themselves, etc. He tries to tell the remaining companions, but they think he’s crazy. A little kid couldn’t conjure up wolf howls and spells and lure people to their deaths. It’s just not possible! (Evidently The Omen hadn’t come out in Medieval England yet.) So Camelot goes off and convinces some local villagers that Narigorm is a witch and they need to get rid of her. Later there’s a climactic scene where Narigorm tries to kill Camelot and nearly succeeds before the villagers arrive, stuff her in a grain sack, and off they go. Camelot has a falling out with the rest of the company, since they just don’t get that Narigorm was an twisted evil twat, and so he leaves to go back to the place of his birth.
At this time it’s revealed that Camelot used to be the head of a noble family, and that he is really a she. She left her family because no one could stand to look at her scar and missing eye (she lost it defending the manor against an attack by the Scots). But when she gets back, her surviving son welcomes her with open arms, and everything is great and wonderful, the venerable old grandmarm come home to roost and live out the rest of her life in comfort—saying nothing about the Black Death that should have still been raging, but whatever. And then after all the explaining and reminiscing, the tense abruptly switches to present voice (which was, in itself, an interesting choice) and Camelot is told by a servant that there’s a strange little girl wanting to see her, a girl with pale skin and snow-white hair. Cue the scare chord and fade to black.
See what I mean about the mediocre 80s horror movie ending? Like I said in the beginning, the ending just didn’t meet the expectations fostered by the rest of the book. It wasn’t bad, exactly, I just expected so much more. The rest of the work was so flippin' sublime, so filled with very real historical horror, that to ignore all of that and rely solely upon supernatural elements to execute the conclusion was a huge disappointment. The ending had nothing to do with the Black Death, even though the book was billed as a "Novel of the Plague," and it was that tonal and stylistic shift that made the ending seem incongruous and lackluster when compared to the rest of the novel. Oh, and the twist with Camelot and everything? I cry foul on that one, damn it. If she was really a woman all along, and she traveled with eight other people for months on end, wouldn’t someone have eventually noticed that she always had to squat to pee? I don’t know how much time you all have spent with guys in the woods (or… well, anywhere, really), but it’s our God-given right to pee standing up. At some point someone should have noticed that ‘ole Camelot was hiking up his robes and popping a squat every time they stopped for a piss break.
But despite all of that, I still give Company of Liars four stars. Yeah, the ending was kind of a stinker, but the journey getting there was worth the price of admission all by itself—which makes my heart break even harder as I lament Maitland’s lost opportunity.