Wednesday, 13 February 2013

February 2012 – The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

Almost all of our members agreed that the book was very slow to kick in, and slightly confusing at first given that most of the characters names were prefixed with Martha (Servant Martha, Healing Martha, Gate Martha etc). After figuring out who was who and seeing how all the characters linked together, we all managed to get into the book by 100-150 pages in. Most of us would never have picked up a book of this genre and description, and were happy that this book was chosen for book club as it helped to increase our knowledge of paganism, corruption of the Church and the superstitious beliefs of that era. The group was split 50/50 on whether we liked each chapter being a different narrative, although it was nice to hear things from several points of view.
For the most part, the plot was highly believable, the corruption of the church, the relationships between the beguines and the villagers and general day to day life of the times (quite shocking and makes us pleased that we are living today)! Some readers picked up on discrepancies between the authors take on paganism and what really happened, but for those of us with no prior knowledge from this era of history, it had no negative effect, although it did induce some Google research to find out more!
The part of the owlman, though integral to the story, felt a bit irrelevant and unrealistic. It was debated as to whether the author wanted us to believe in the owlman (especially having read the historical notes at the end) or realise it was just a part of the superstitions of the time. The last sentence in the epilogue where it states, “we are all afraid of the dark”, sums the overall theme of the owlman up nicely – Very symbolic of the fear of the unknown.
The characters were not all likeable and there were really far too many different points of view to grasp. Not many people liked Father Ulefred or Beatrice, but empathised with their situations. We all felt that Servant Martha was a good strong central character and Osmanna was a very modern character for the era the book was set (in a good way). The villains of the story (Osmanna’s Father, Peter) seemed almost too pantomime at times, taking away the believability of their roles. In terms of the imagery created by the writing style, one of the most stand out characters was Gudrun, who was very vivid in our minds even though she never spoke. One of our readers mentioned how it was obvious who the owl master was as his “non owl master character” was mentioned several times but not for any particular reason.
There weren't really any profound moments in the book, however we did find the history of beguines and how forward thinking the women were quite interesting, also how the villagers either thought they were lesbians or witches, but were more than happy to accept their healing and food. The descriptions of the Saint Days at the beginning of each chapter was also appreciated. Other parts which stuck out included the treatment of lepers – poor Ralph and his family, the nature of Gudrun's death, and how Osmanna's father treated her and cast her out.
Considering the length of the book, the majority of us were hugely let down by the ending. The book generally felt about 100 pages too long, and seemed to fizzle out too early. We would have liked some closure and to find out what happened to the beguines and the owl masters. Perhaps it was the authors intention for them to just disappear to reflect upon the fact traces of beguinages have been found in the UK but there has never been official proof.
The writing style was very descriptive and provoked our imagination, however considering each chapter was from a different narrative, you couldn't distinguish between each character i.e. you would assume a poor villager to have a more simple dialogue than a child brought up in the richest house of the village, and again different to that of a Belgian beguine. The group decided that to read another book by Karen Maitland, they would have to look at the theme/era and length of the book. As some members were put off The Owl Killers by the different narrators, they would want to see how any further books by Maitland are set out.
11 members attended this meeting, giving the book an average of 6 out of 10, a lowest score of 4 and highest of 7 – The length of the book and the ending detracting marks for many of us.

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