Friday, November 30, 2007

Alan Garner's The Owl Service

By Dorothy W.

First of all, thanks to Ann for choosing Alan Garner’s young adult novel The Owl Service for the Slaves of Golconda selection; I always want to read new types of books, and this qualifies, as I generally don’t read much young adult fiction. Perhaps I should read more. So thank you Ann!

I feel ambivalently about this book, though. What it comes down to is that while there was much in the novel that made me think, I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it as much as I thought I would. I’m happy to have plenty to analyze as I read along, but I really wanted to get lost in the story, especially as it’s a young adult novel, and I never found myself fully absorbed in it. I felt distanced the whole time.

The novel tells the story of three young people who are vacationing in Wales; Alison and Roger are half-siblings and Gwyn is the son of the housekeeper. They discover a set of plates in their attic with a mysterious pattern on them, a pattern that when Alison traces it, creates owls. The pattern afterwards disappears, though, and so do the owls Alison has made. Soon the threesome notices a whole series of odd events, including strange scratching noises, objects unexpectedly moving, and walls crumbling apart. Gradually, with the help of Gwyn’s knowledge of Welsh folklore and information from the odd figure Huw Halfbacon, they figure out they are witnessing the resurgence of an old legend about a woman created from flowers who betrays her husband for the sake of a lover.

I began reading the book with no knowledge of this legend, and had to piece it together as I read; I think I might have felt less confused and have enjoyed the reading more if I’d been familiar with it to begin with. It took a long time for the pieces to come together. Rather than enjoying this process of figuring everything out — which is partly what reading is all about, of course — I felt there was information I should have had but didn’t.

The dialogue also felt odd to me, and perhaps this is simply a cultural matter, but the characters talked as though they were older; I had trouble believing they were teenagers. I had to re-read many passages of dialogue because the language and, even more so, the rhythms of their speech felt strange.

But I was fascinated by the class issues the novel portrays, and the way these issues touch on language. Gwyn’s mother chastises him for speaking Welsh because she wants him to leave his rural roots behind:

“You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.”

But Gwyn is drawn to the people and the culture of the Welsh countryside, intrigued by Huw Halfbacon and his mysterious pronouncements. He’s also self-conscious about his accent, however, and worried about whether his mother will allow him to continue his education, and whether that accent will hamper his progress. In one of the novel’s most painful scenes, he wants to borrow Alison’s gramophone to listen to records teaching elocution lessons. He is mortified when Roger finds out about this and mocks him for it.

As the son of the housekeeper, Gwyn is constantly reminded of his outsider status, and often cruelly so; Roger teases and belittles him, and when Gwyn begins spending more time with Alison than the others think proper, they make it clear they do not approve and that they will do whatever they need to to make sure he stays away. Gwyn is a hugely sympathetic character; it’s impossible not to feel for him as he struggles with his attraction to Alison, his worries about his mother, and his curiosity about all the mysteries that surround him, including that of the identity of his father.

So, again, I’m glad I read this, even though I had mixed feelings about it — I do enjoy reading books that make me think, even if a lot of what I’m thinking about is why I’m not loving them.


Imani said...

Oh, it wasn't only me! Now I'm wondering if I put too much of the blame on myself for not recognising what the hell was going on during my first reading. I don't think I would have been able to tell anyone what the book was about except a murmur or two about magic plates and instructions to go to Wikipedia to get background on the myth. I had the same problem with the language too. I forgot to mention that.

Someone needs to start that metaxucafe thread! (Actually I think I will, if that's ok.) I'm *dying* to talk about the ending.

Stefanie said...

Oh that part about Gwyn's accent made me so sad. I think I would have enjoyed the book more too if I had known the myth beforehand. Garner didn't make it easy to put the pieces of the myth together.

Rebecca H. said...

I don't feel strongly enough about this book to re-read it, but your experience does tempt me a bit, Imani -- I think I'd enjoy it more the second time around and appreciate how the parts of it fit together.

Stefanie -- no, he didn't make it easy, did he? I wonder how young adults felt about this book when it was published -- did many of them know about the myth? What kind of audience did Garner expect?

Anonymous said...

I think one of the issues here is that this is very much a British book and while a lot of even British modern youth probably wouldn't know the specific myth, they would be aware of the fact that there is a whole wealth of Welsh legend that is of great importance to the national identity. And in the 1960s, when it was written, this was very much a live debate. Welsh nationalism was a headline issue and the tragedy at Aberfan was only months before the book was published. There is, of course, a question as to whether Garner should have spelt things out more clearly nevertheless, but I think at the time it would have been seen as overwriting.

litlove said...

I agree with you about the dialogue, Dorothy! And my experience of reading was very much the same as yours - appreciation and interest, at the same time as confusion and bewilderment!

Rebecca H. said...

Ann -- thank you for all the contextualizing you've done -- it really does help make sense of things, and I can see that even having a vague sense of the myths and what's at stake as far as identity is concerned would help.