Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Owl Service: More Questions than Answers

I'm a bit late coming to the discussion of the latest Slaves of Golconda novel, Alan Garner's The Owl Service. I'm not sure I will have anything new to add to the many excellent posts that the Slaves have been sharing already. But shall I attempt to give my own small spin on it anyway? First, I read a review before I started reading this YA novel that said readers will either love it or hate it. I'm not sure that is entirely accurate, however. I've gone through a variety of emotions while reading this. Confusion, incomprehension, dislike (for characters that is), appreciation. I didn't hate it, though I can't say exactly that I loved it either. I did like it--or aspects of it anyway, though I am still not sure I actually understood it all. At this point it is a book that I have finished with more questions than answers. Certainly this is a good candidate for a reread. I'm not sure I would hand this book to just any young adult reader. I wonder perhaps if they should be a fairly sophisticated reader for their age to understand and enjoy it.

I am rather weak in the area of mythology and fairy and folk tales, though I am becoming more and more interested in them, which is part of the reason I did like this book. It is based on the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of Medieval stories. More specifically it retells the story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made from flowers who betrays her husband with another man and is turned into an owl. It took a while to get into the novel and then I always felt as though I was working to dig out the meaning--actually digging just to understand what was going on at times. It was written in 1967, and the setting is contemporary to that period. Alison and Roger are stepbrother and sister. Their parents have recently married and have come to Wales on holiday, where Alison has inherited a house from her deceased father. The house is looked after by Nancy and Huw Halfbacon and Nancy's son Gywn. When I first started reading the book I assumed that Ali, Roger and Gywn were actually great friends about to undertake one of those fantastical journeys that you come across in YA literature, as they were all of a same age. In actuality there was a certain amount of tension between them.

When Ali hears scratching noises in the attic above her bedroom, they investigate and find a set of plates. They have an intricate pattern on them, and when Ali traces them they form owls. I won't go into great detail of the plot. If you'd like to know more, the Wikipedia gives a fairly concise summary. I also found this very good review, which was helpful in understanding the mythology of the story. Essentially Ali, Roger and Gywn have set in motion the events of the myth once again. Along with the mythological aspect of the story there are also the issues of class--the wealthier Ali and Roger compared to the poor son of a servant, Gwyn, and issues of nationalism--Welsh and British prejudices. And then to spice things up just a bit more there is lots of what I am guessing is British slang and colloquialisms particular to that time and place that had to be sorted out as well. I've definitely come to the conclusion that YA literature doesn't equal easy reading.

My experience with YA literature and with mythological/fantasy stories is pretty narrow, so for me I could appreciate what the author was trying to do, though it didn't always make for smooth going. Maybe there are better books out there trying to do the same thing without this extent of complexity? I have barely skimmed the surface of what this book is even about and given you only the barest description. This is not a book I would have picked up to read on my own, but I am glad that I have been exposed to it. And still I am left with more questions than answers. By the way, this was not a book with a tidy ending, but I am hoping discussion might shed more light on things. Thanks to Ann for suggesting this novel. I'm always happy to stretch my mind a bit when it comes to books! If you've read the book, please consider joining us for the Discussion.
Cross posted at A Work in Progress.


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Danielle said...

Okay the one person to post a comment is a DARN spammer. Go AWAY spammer. I know you didn't even read the book! Who has authorization to delete comments? Can you please delete Mr Debt Consolidation and this one, too!

Actually--we're tired of all the SPAM comments that are left on blogs!

litlove said...

I'm not sure how to get rid of Mr Spam (LOL, Danielle!!) but I enjoyed your account very much. I, too, thought at first they must all be friends on holiday together and it takes a while (that bit was well done) for all those tensions to ease out into the open. I had more questions than answers too!

Rebecca H. said...

I hate it when people say you will either love or hate something. I never do! I didn't love or hate this book, but find myself fascinated by it but also troubled and confused.

Danielle said...

Litlove--Literally seconds after I posted my thoughts on the book and went to see if it was formatted okay, a comment appeared. Who on earth could read my post so quickly and comment? A spammer of course. Oh well. It's interesting what I had in mind initially when I started the book--it turned out to be very different in the end. He certainly didn't spell it all out at the beginning, but I liked that as well.
Dorothy--I rarely love or hate a book. Sometimes I will love something, but more often there are things I like and things that I felt worked less well. I guess he did something right to make me feel the variety of emotions I did, though.

Lazygal said...

I read this book ages ago as an ARC, and, like you, said it was "interesting". The biggest problem for me was that if I, as an adult, couldn't follow it without a lot of work, I didn't see students (eg, the target audience) enjoying it because they'd not be able to follow it. Yes, it won an award, but who gave it? YA Readers? Probably not.