The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland, is some of the best historical fiction that I’ve read in a while. I’m always a bit tentative about reading historical fiction, because I really hate it when the books have glaring anachronisms or when the characters behave in a 21st century manner in, say, in 1700s or Ancient Rome. This is why I will not, under any circumstances, read Ariana Franklin. In my opinion, the best historical fiction will not only make a vanished time and place come to life, but it will also challenge you to understand how people thought and behaved at that time. The Owl Killers does both.
This story, told in several voices, takes place in a fictional (but historically accurate) village near Norwich in 1320-1321, about 25 years before the Black Death blitzed its way across England. It doesn’t take long for Maitland to show you that something sinister is going on in Ulewic. Unless you do some research into it, it’s easy to get the impression that Europe’s conversion to Christianity happened quickly. Constantine converts. Early church saints and believers spread out and breach the gospels and, in a few centuries, mission accomplished. But in some parts of Europe, old beliefs hung on. You can still see some of examples today: Christmas trees, getting dressed up for Halloween, mid summer festivals in the Midwest. While Ulewic has a church and a priest and a newly formed beguinage, they’re still clinging pretty fiercely to their old ways. Social order is still maintained by the secretive Owl Masters, men in masks who worship local variations of the old Celtic gods. If you do read this book, make sure you read the historical note at the end. It’s fascinating.
Life in Ulewic is far from ideal. There’ve been bad harvests. The greedy local lord and the sinful priest have tithed and taxed the people too much. There’s a flood. There’s illness. The only place that seems to be doing alright is the beguinage, founded by women just over from the successful beguine communities in Flanders. Because these women are not nuns–beguines only took an oath of chastity, were free to leave at any time, and retained their own property–they’re not really under the control of anyone. Partly because of that, and partly because they’re not sick and starving, it’s easy for the priest and the Owl Masters to stir up the locals against them. Most of the book is about these two sides sparring against each other. The longer I read, the more dread I felt. I completely sympathized with the beguines (even though they’re very pious) and it was clear that something terrible was going to happen.
I’ve read few books that have as many narrators as The Owl Killers. It’s got to be hard to try and write in five or six first person perspectives and give them their own unique voice. Maitland juggles her narrators skillfully, and the effect is that, while there is a larger story that unites them, there are several smaller stories happening at the same time. We meet Servant Martha, the leader of the beguines, who struggles to keep her women safe and united in purpose. We meet Father Ulfrid, the horny priest sent to Ulewic in punishment. He tries to be a good priest (briefly) and fulfill his duties, but he rapidly becomes a puppet for the local lordling and the Owl Masters. We meet Beatrice, a disappointed women who goes mad over the course of the novel. There’s Agatha, a new beguine with terrible secrets who becomes a heretic after reading a book. And there’s poor Pisspuddle, the only narrator who isn’t in either camp. She’s there to show what life is like for the villagers.
As I read, two things jumped out at me. First, there was the attitudes towards women that people of the time had. My God, the misogyny! It wore me down and I was just a reader. There was only one male narrator in this book, but I don’t think more would have helped. The women just can’t get ahead in this book. People fear the beguines’ independence and are jealous of their success. The central conflict in this book is between the beguines and the Owl Masters, but it might just as well have been between men and women. Historical fiction like this makes be glad that I was born in the 20th century and makes me want to thank, profusely and profoundly, the suffragettes and the feminists.
Second, there was the religious attitudes. To these people, I’m sure that even Salt Lake City would look like a den of iniquity. 1321 was centuries before the Enlightenment. If people reasoned, they would reason out a supernatural explanation for their situation. If the cattle failed, it was because someone hexed them or it was God’s will. The same if children fell ill and died. Therefore, the only way to make things right was to either appease God (or the local gods) or find the witch, though touching a holy relic wouldn’t go amiss. God (and the gods) were everywhere and they were active. The characters in this book literally see demons and gods in this book. This is one of those things that is hard for me to wrap my 21st century mind around and reminded me that the past really is a foreign country.
*SPOILERS AHEAD. STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS*
The Owl Killers is a terrific read. The only place it falters, I think, is near the end. After all the fighting and terror of the middle, the end fizzles. As I got closer and started to run out of pages, I wondered how Maitland was going to wrap it all up. It all boils down to a big (ish) confrontation and then all the survivors (more than I would have guessed) go their separate ways. The beguines pack it in and head back to Flanders. Father Ulfrid goes back to trying to maintain the church’s toehold in Ulewic. Pisspuddle and her brother leave the village. And that’s it. Except for the people who did die, the whole incident might never have happened. The only satisfaction I had was knowing that the village was probably going to die completely in a year or so.
I highly recommend The Owl Killers to fans of darker than normal historical fiction and to any fans of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. This is a well-researched and well-constructed novel. Even the supernatural parts seem utterly believable. I loved that Maitland showed a part of the Middle Ages that I’d never thought much of before. The beguines, given the time and the attitudes of many people at that time, seem like a miracle of modernity. This was a very interesting read and I’m curious to see what Maitland comes up with next.