Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Karen Maitland's THE GALLOWS CURSE

Mandrake root has been believed to be capable of many, many things, but who knew it also had narrative talent?

Such is the conceit of The Gallows Curse, in which a mandrake root tells the story of various intrigues taking place during the reign of King John the Worst*, aka John Lackland, specifically during the height of his dispute with Pope Innocent III over who got to pick the Archbishop of Canterbury, which, as the main flow of this novel opens, has not only resulted in John's excommunication but also in, effectively, a complete interdiction on church activity in John's dominions. While neither the King nor the Pope exactly chose this, their dispute left all the parish priests and bishops so afraid that most of them fled or went into hiding.

Result: no one can take confession. No one can get married. No one can have a Christian burial. Et cetera. With interesting results, conceit #2 being -- and I cannot dispute this or call it far-fetched in any way -- that the interdiction had the effect of driving good Christians at least partway back into the arms of a paganism that still survived at least insomuch as there were "cunning women" and all sorts of lively superstition still abroad in Merrie Olde, which superstitions and folk beliefs are cleverly disclosed between chapters in the form of extended quotations from something called the Mandrake's Herbal.

More specifically, The Gallows Curse involves the story of some returned crusaders who variously compelled or were compelled to perform an especially hideous act, the nature of which is kept secret through most of the novel. All we know as the story begins to unfold (told, as I say, by a mandrake root, though we could easily forget this for long stretches that are indistinguishable, narratively, from any other novel written in good old First Person Omniscient, without the odd reminder here and there in the form of the mandrake root's breaking the fourth wall and making a direct observation -- which, I'll confess, I found a bit disappointing, wishing that Maitland had tried harder to invent a real and unique narrative voice for the mandrake narrator) is that it was bad enough to weigh so heavily on one's conscience when he lays dying, and dying unshriven, that his best friend, Raffaele, resorts to tricking an innocent local girl into acting as a sin eater over his friend's corpse.

Much of the rest of the novel's plot spins out from that simple action, and while we spend far too much time with the local girl, Elena (who is, of course, not as innocent as she gave out she was when she was engaged by Raffaele; in fact, she was pregnant when she ate his friend's sins, which causes all sorts of interesting trouble later on), her course brings us into contact with some pretty interesting characters, many of them Bechdel-passing females of considerable wit and strength and interest -- they would not be out of place in a Dorothy Dunnett novel -- and, weirdly, into the heart of a plot against King John.

But chiefly for me, the interest in The Gallows Curse lies in its exploration of what  the world would be like if all of the folk beliefs in the Mandrake's Herbal were true, if sniffing a marigold every morning would keep you from getting sick, if carrying certain seeds made you invisible, if tying a sack of live mice around your neck would get rid of a cough, etc. Maitland does a pretty good job of imagining the inner lives of people living in that kind of world, something I've wanted to see every since I encountered the made-up academic disciplines of Clement Hollier in Robertson Davies' wonderful The Rebel Angels.

I did have to put this book on pause for a while, though. Like a lot of snobby readers (cough! SJ! cough!) I have some rage-triggers. Overuse of "whilst" is one I share with SJ, but I have one that sends me into tantrums worse than that, and one that writers employ all the damned time. I'm talking specifically about a phrase that gets slipped in when describing beverages. God, why do you writers keep doing this? Do you think it's sophisticated? Clever? Original? It's NOT. Anyway, I'm talking about mentioning a beverage, say, wine, and then, usually within the same sentence, describing it as "the [color] liquid." So one might come out with "'This beer is good,' Blah said, sipping (sometimes "quaffing") the amber liquid." Or in this case, one character offers another a flagon of wine and he pours "the ruby liquid." STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP. Really, it's perfectly okay to use a simple pronoun there. Pour it. Sip it. Drain it from a corpse and make it into stew. Whatever you fancy, I probably fancy it, too, because I'm not noticing it. And wanting to throw my ereader at the wall upon said noticing.

But anyway, that's just a pet peeve, and after a few days enjoyment of less doltish prose (that being The Six Directions of Space and some Patrick O'Brian), I returned to this gladly, because I wanted to see where the story was going, even if it was mostly with (sigh) Elena. And really, rage trigger aside, there is some nice prose here. And lots of inventiveness. It was worth getting over my ire, it really was.

And here I have to give a shout out to my own dear personal mom, who recommended it to me, albeit indirectly. When BooksFree finally punted on providing this and several others on her wish list, she decided to punt on BooksFree and finally let me get her an ebook reader, and agreed to share with me a list of as many of the titles she was missing out on as she could recall. Of course my sister and I got them all for her, to fill her new reader! Anyway, it wound up being quite an intriguing list. This is the first of those I've read -- I was sucked in by that fantastic cover art! -- but it won't be my last, and it won't be my last Karen Maitland, either.

Especially when I see via GoodReads that lots of people do not consider The Gallows Curse to be her best work!

*Wink to you fans of Disney's Robin Hood.


  1. I just read two of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe books, and they were full of colored liquids. It *is* pretty annoying. (But so were the sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, so...yeah.)

    1. I've been noticing you reading those and had thought, maybe it's time I did, too. But maybe not!

  2. The GoodReads commentators are right, this is not Maitland's best. I personally liked The Owl Killers best, but decided she was worth pursuing after reading her first book, Company of Liars.


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