The latest selection for the Slaves of Golconda is Alan Garner’s award winning young adult novel, The Owl Service. I wondered what I would make of it as I remembered not liking Garner much as a child. As an adult I can see why: Garner has one of those styles that is sparse and enigmatic to the point of being gnomic at times. He is not the author to provide explanations or tie up loose ends. Instead events occur in a metaphorical, symbolic realm that is heavy on atmosphere but light on causality. He falls very much into a particular category of writer to me, producing a certain kind of masculine literature that one reads on the very brink of incomprehension. I enjoyed this novel as an adult because I felt I had the critical tools to do so, but I can see why it would have foxed and alarmed me as a child. Garner’s language is fundamental to the problem; it seems to glance off the objects it seeks to represent without ever fully landing on them. Most of the story passes in dialogue and what dialogue it is! Speech is full of colloquialisms, local idiom, antiquated sayings, casual slang, dialect. Garner’s teenagers sound like old testament prophets, sit com characters and precocious intellectuals all at once, and there’s still room in there to add in the cadences and rhythms of different parts of the country and different layers of class. Reading it gives me the sensation of having an itch I can’t quite scratch. I think it’s very clever stuff, but I do wonder whether a student reading this novel with English as a second language would have a clue what was going on.
It took me a while to get into this novel and figure out what was going on. Essentially Garner takes the story of an old love triangle from Welsh legends The Mabinogian and layers it onto three disparate teenagers brought together on summer holiday in the original valley but in the present day. History repeats itself continually, Garner suggests, unless the spell can be broken by the individuals involved finding it in themselves to transcend their feelings and gut animosities. Trying to get a hold on the structure of the plot, I realized it reminded me of two classics: Sartre’s play No Exit, in which three characters who naturally rub each other up the wrong way are trapped in hell for all eternity (source of the famous line ‘Hell is other people’) and Hitchcock’s classic horror movie, The Birds, in which natural phenomenon go out of control, possibly in response to the heightened emotions of the characters in the story. Of the three teenagers, Alison and Roger have money, class and Englishness on their side, against them they have emotional vulnerability (Alison) and stubborn arrogance (Roger). Gwyn, the Welsh lad whose mother is housekeeping for the uneasy second marriage that is Roger’s father and Alison’s mother, carries the burden of heroism for most of the novel. He has class, Welshness and lack of money against him, but he represents an outward looking force of motivation and strength that the other privileged children lack. Yet his aborted relationship with Alison wounds him so much that in the end he cannot overcome his sense of betrayal and fulfill his role of savior.
The characters who interested me more than the teenagers were in fact the terrible examples of parenting with which the novel abounds. Roger’s father Clive is perhaps the most sympathetic, but he is a weak man, giving in to everyone’s demands for the sake of a quiet life. Alison’s mother is entirely absent from the scene of the action, but provides a powerful off-stage voice as She Who Must Be Obeyed. Everyone is obliged to tiptoe around in order not to disturb her ‘resting’ but she is clearly energetic enough to exert a strong libidinal hold over Alison, forbidding her to associate with Gwyn. Gwyn wins the booby prize for parents, however, his mother, Nancy, the housekeeper being in a state of perpetual bad-tempered hysterics throughout the narrative (caused because of the bad associations of the place for her, we are told), easy with her fists on Gwyn and incapable of giving love. Over the course of the tale Gwyn discovers that his father is the semi-incoherent halfwit, Huw Halfbacon, whose primal association with the valley offers their only hope of understanding and breaking the chain of mythic events that are unfolding. It says something that by the end of the book, Huw isn’t looking too bad as parental material in comparison to the others. How could these children break free of the bonds of bad parenting and transcend their constraints, both inherited and nurtured, in order to rise to the challenge of the mythic curse on the valley? Well, they do and they don’t, and it strikes me that I would have appreciated that story more than the one I got. But then it would have been a classic children’s adventure tale, and instead we are given a frustrating but profound piece of literature. I ought to be pleased about this, but I do wish I understood who or what it was that was doing all that scratching in the attic in the very first place. A few more answers wouldn’t have gone amiss.