Saturday 19 March 2011

Company of Liars

'Company of Liars' by Karen Maitland. Another audiobook from the library that has held me captive over the last few days, waking up early to knit and listen (am on holiday for a few days), but it has left me distinctly dissatisfied. I had the feeling of being left slightly in the lurch on the final page, exacerbated by discovering on the author's website that a limited edition paperback contained a 'lost chapter' written in the voice of one of the characters, adding extra information about the tale. My audiobook did not have this chapter, nor did the copy I found on the library shelves and you have no way of knowing if any particular online second hand copy might have it. You would think that since it has been in print for a couple of years now she would have the decency to put it on her website for the benefit of other loyal readers who have enjoyed her books.

So the book is set in the 1300s as the Plague reaches England for the first time, and follows a disparate group of travellers who find themselves thrown together by chance, all of them with something they want to hide, but finding safety in numbers. Most of them make a living on the road, buying and selling or entertaining for their living, two musicians, a dealer in relics, a storyteller and a magician, excepting a young couple, expecting their first child, who are plainly not suited to the demands of medieval travel. And with them a young girl, marked out by her white hair and translucent skin, who reads runes and tells fortunes, and sits unassumingly in the background of their little band, watching and listening, searching for the chinks in everyone's armour. They begin travelling between fairs to earn money until the first rumours of the plague mean that they prefer to avoid contact with towns and try to fend for themselves, living off the land. They become more mutually dependent, sharing skills and resources. Their fear of the pursuing illness is intensified by the growing feeling that they are being hunted by a lone wolf that they hear howling at night near their camp. The scene is set for a gradual cranking up of the tension between the characters, they turn on each other and a series of horrific events overtake them but they seem set on a path that they cannot escape.

It is clever and fast paced and gives you just enough clues that you think you know what is going on. The background research is impressive and the historical detail convincing, the lives and concerns of ordinary people, the dominant role of the church in their existence. The ignorance and superstition that pervades the society is quite chilling. It all fits together very neatly and creates an enthralling atmosphere. The characters are all convincing and interesting; a little like the Canterbury Tales as they sit around their fire they all tell stories that give nothing direct away about themselves and yet with hindsight are very revealing. And yet it is almost because they are all hiding their own little secret that makes them more forgiving of the flaws of their travelling companions, but you do feel they are bound together by genuine friendship.

It was a good book, thoroughly engaging, but, without giving anything away, the ending left me with too much to be assumed or guessed at. I needed more explanation of what was driving the mystery, there was too much of a sense of these characters being the victims of random events, their 'lies' did not drive the story, did not seem to be integral to it. I think I will be making an ad hoc search for a copy with the lost chapter just to satisfy my curiosity, but I am put off reading her book 'The Owl Killers' because she has done the same thing again and I am not in the mood to be cheated twice.


  1. sounds an intriguing book, but i agree, it's not satisfying to feel you've been short changed in the story...

  2. Hi so bit of a longshot but other than an archived version on the karen maitland official web page this page is one of the only sources that mentions the lost chapter.did u ever find a version wit it in as i have a copy that the isbn points towards it being the version that should have the lost chapter but i can not see additional content.


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