by Kari Heil
If you’re into history or thrillers or both, then Karen Maitland’s Company of Liars (2008) probably will appeal to you. It’s one of those books that you think about when you’re not reading it, one that makes you want to figure out the next surprise before you read about it.
I love fiction that completely immerses me in a certain period, that is deeply researched and carefully detailed to create an intricate picture of its time and place. Maitland’s book is really good in its depiction of peasant life in England in 1348, when the bubonic plague first hit the British Isles. The book’s main characters, the nine members of the company traveling together, are common people. They all are outsiders or outcasts in their own ways, thrown together by dire circumstances. These are not the noble kings and knights people have come to expect in stories about medieval England. Maitland introduces us to Camelot who sells counterfeit religious relics town to town; a starving street urchin who reads runes; her caretaker, a midwife; a magician who makes his living playing simple tricks on unsuspecting villagers at fairs and festivals; a painter of church art and his pregnant wife; two roving Italian minstrels who entertain wherever people will listen and pay; and a deformed man who is suspected of rape and murder. Of course, as the title of the book suggests, none of these people are just what they seem; they all tell lies to preserve themselves. Several of them even seem to have supernatural powers, which works well in the context of medieval religious beliefs and superstitions.
Maitland outlines the very distinct lives her characters led before they cut themselves loose and set off across a dark, rainy, cold land to escape their pasts, hide their secrets, and ultimately avoid their deaths. As each member takes a turn telling his or her story around the fire at night, readers are offered insight into their relationships with each other and their attitudes about the plague, the church, the world. It seems natural that the characters should discuss what gives people faith and hope in desperate times, what makes people hate and fear one another. Though Maitland doesn’t press these kinds of issues, she gives readers a little something more than just the company’s journey to think about.
Maitland’s book often is compared to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which many people may have read parts of in high school or college – probably without much liking it. I found Maitland’s book much more readable than the classic. And, of course, creepier. And bloodier. After all, Maitland’s company tells stories on the run from the plague, among other things, while the members of Chaucer’s motley crew are traveling together on a good, old-fashioned pilgrimage, a somewhat less fraught occasion for most of them.
I relished reading about what the people in Maitland’s unlikely band of travelers ate and wore, how they managed their daily tasks of finding food and shelter, what the members of the company saw and experienced in villages and in the countryside as panic about the plague and the disease itself spread. Maitland makes landscapes, weather, the mundane processes of daily living, and popular medieval traditions truly interesting, as seen through the eyes of the book’s narrator, Camelot. The peddler keenly observes a society falling apart from the effects of widespread starvation, a deadly, unstoppable sickness, and unbridled fear in every heart and soul.
But Company of Liars is more than history; it also is a suspenseful tale of a group of traveling companions fleeing enemies they cannot see, fearing for their lives at every turn, killing each other off. It sounds gruesome, and it certainly is, but the effect of the violence is more often chilling than disgusting. Maitland is not exactly subtle in building up to each death in the company, but the thrill is in waiting for what seems inevitable and in trying to figure out what is really happening, since we don’t want to believe in the dark magic that seems to be at work. The book is impressive in its overall spookiness, despite some of the plot turns being predictable. Some readers complain that the characters’ secrets – their lies – are easy to guess before they are revealed; but I found this morbid game pretty fun – knowing a revelation must be coming, wondering whose secret will come out next, how it will be discovered, who will be the next to die, and how.
Another criticism of Company of Liars is that none of the characters are very sympathetic. It is true that Maitland doesn’t attend to character development as much as plot and historical detail, but I found Camelot compelling and sympathetic enough to engage me, though I have to admit, I was a bit let down when Camelot’s secret was finally fully revealed. Still, Maitland’s eerie ending almost makes up for that: she leaves the reader with a big shiver and a shock in the last few pages, hinting that sinister powers are moving in the world.
What I really want to know now is what’s in the “lost chapter” in the special trade paperback edition of Company of Liars, which was produced in limited numbers and sold out quickly. This chapter, according to Maitland’s website, is narrated by Narigorm, the rune girl, and reveals one final secret. The story is complete without this bit, Maitland says, but she wrote it as a little “something extra.”
Maitland lives in Lincoln, England. She is a total medieval buff, it seems, even cooking the dishes she describes in her several books set in the period.
For the Kiddos
My kids and I recently rediscovered a wonderful book that lives at Grandma’s house in Wisconsin, and we hope lots of other parents and kids will read it and love it like we do. Much Bigger Than Martin (1976) by Steven Kellogg is one book I remember vividly from my own childhood; I must’ve read it or had it read to me a million times – it’s that familiar to me. Exaggeration is appropriate in this case because in the story, the little brother, Henry, the narrator, imagines himself much bigger than his older brother, Martin – as big as a fairy tale giant. Now, Henry’s problem is very common among little siblings, I gather: he is sick of not being able to do all the things his big brother can do, and he is sick of his big brother bossing him around. He figures, if he were much bigger than Martin, he would be the boss. To be the boss is his most fervent desire, a sentiment I think we all can sympathize with, even if we have never been the little sib or have never observed a bigger and a littler sibling in action.
So Henry tries everything he can think of to get much bigger – from stretching himself, to eating so many apples he feels sick. The situation is not funny to Henry, but it sure is to my kids and me. Kellogg’s illustrations of Henry trying to achieve his dream really crack us up, as do the pictures of how Henry imagines he will treat his bossy big brother when he, Henry, is too big to fit in the house. There is a bit of malice to Henry’s dream, but it only seems fair after all the everyday kid-size injustices he’s suffered at the hands of Martin. Eventually, thanks to his parents’ wise counsel and intercession, Henry realizes that there would be a downside to being that much bigger than Martin, and he and Martin come to a peaceable understanding of how to deal with their differences and get along together. In this book, Kellogg captures something essential about being a child – that strong will to grow up and be capable, to be able to do stuff. We all can appreciate Henry’s struggle to be much bigger.