I have Cathy of the excellent Kittling: Books to thank for recommending Company of Liars: A Novel of the Plague, another book to feed my recently re-kindled interest in historical fiction. I chose to listen to the book when I came across a particularly excellent narration by David Thorpe.
We are in England in 1348. ‘The pestilence’ has arrived in the southern ports and as panic and desperation mount in roughly equal measures a company of unlikely travelling companions begins to form of necessity rather than any inherent liking for each other. The first member of the company, and the story’s narrator, is Camelot: a seller of religious relics. Camelot is soon joined by two musicians, a painter and his pregnant wife, a young child (who reads runes) and her carer, a one-armed/one-winged storyteller and a spooky sort of conjurer. They travel from town to village to wherever they can lay their heads trying to keep ahead of the plague and find food and what passes for safety. To make things interesting not only must they deal daily with the physical threat of an imminent (and ghastly) death but each traveller has the kind of secret that can get a person killed. Or worse.
Although I studied history quite diligently for years beforehand I actually fell in love with the subject in my second year at University when I took a subject called Everyman in Pre-Industrial Europe. It was the first time I’d been exposed to the day-to-day lives of the ‘average’ person (rather than kings and wars and all that boring nonsense) and I was captivated. Company of Liars is the sort of research-based fiction that brings that kind of history to life. It is a glimpse into the everyday lives of an incongruous but representative group of people during what must have been a truly frightening time and their plight is gripping. The depictions of plague-ravaged villages, the seemingly endless winter, the daily struggle to forage for something to eat, having to rely on people you don’t trust for your very survival and townsfolk desperate to appease whatever forces had brought disease upon them were outstanding. I was several times surprised to find myself on a busy urban street in 2010 when I could have sworn I was on a mud-soaked track in the middle of an English forest. It really is superb storytelling.
For the first two thirds of the book I was completely immersed in the plight of the company and was always annoyed when forced to stop listening. I thought for the most part that Maitland did a great job of mixing the magical and realistic elements of the story but towards the end of the book the mystical element did take over almost completely and this is where my attention wavered a little. I also thought the revelations of each traveller’s secret started to take on a predictability that was not evident at the beginning of the tale and while the twist in the ending didn’t bother me I was quite unsatisfied by the loose ends.
The book is marketed as a historical mystery but I’d argue it only fits if you use the loosest possible definition. It’s a mystery in the way that all good books make you curious to find out the things you don’t know but other than that it doesn’t really have any of the hallmarks of a traditional mystery.
Company of Liars has not surpassed my favourite plague-related historical fiction, Geraldine Brooks’ A Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, but it’s definitely one of the better books to capture the essence of what it might have been like to be alive at such a time. If you can handle myth mixed with reality in your storytelling I’d recommend you give this a go. If you’re an audio book lover like me I highly recommend David Thorpe’s narration which really helps create an immersive experience.
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My rating 4/5
Narrator: David Thorpe; Publisher: Oakhill Publishing ; ISBN: N/A (downloaded from audible.com); Length 18hrs 50mins; Setting: England 1348.
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