Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland

4 stars

1321 turned out to be a pretty cruddy year for the village of Ulewic.

Times are tough – crops are failing and the meagre harvests are blighted with mould, while the livestock is falling foul of disease, and what passes for the local power is too busy preying on the populace to be of much help.

Ruled over by a lord obsessed with chastity whose nephew is obsessed with relieving people of theirs – consensually or not - their priest is also too busy fornicating, and then worrying about getting caught, to attract any to his flock. Instead, the villagers turn to the beguinage on its doorstep for help and charity, or to the older gods and the Owl Masters that apparently serve them for justice and revenge.

It’s with the women of the beguinage – a community of religious women of the kind that apparently flourished across Europe at the time – that this story is chiefly concerned. Already suspicious due to being foreigners, and attracting the ire of what passes for the church due to being women and for not doing exactly as the priest says, when the daughter of the local lord becomes one of their number events are set in motion to sorely test their faith.

Breathing life into an age that was dogged by superstition, bullied by the church, where the less fortunate were the playthings of the powerful and where being a woman is one of the biggest sins anyone could commit, The Owl Killers told its tale slowly and effectively, with multiple narrators showing us multiple viewpoints and letting us question what we’d seen or been told (although not all of the narrators were as effective as others and the slowness sometimes felt a little too slow) but the end result was largely an atmospheric and intelligent take on the lives of women in medieval England.

Read it when the nights are drawing in, the wind is blowing and the rain is dripping from the trees and you'll soon be nervously eyeing every bird (and man, especially religious ones) that crosses your path.

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