Friday, November 30, 2007

The Owl Service

The Owl Service by Alan Garner, is--interesting. And if you live in Minnesota or you know someone who does, you will probably understand that when we say "well now that was interesting" with a certain inflection it is a nice way to say "I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I sort of like it. I sort of don't. I'm leaning towards don't but I'm willing to consider what others think of it and possibly as a result end up liking it but it has to be a convincing argument." Of course sometimes it also means, "This guy is a real nutcase and I'm just going to humor him and hope he goes away soon." See, Minnesotans pride ourselves on being nice--Minnesota Nice--and have found all kinds of ways to make it seem like we are nice an polite when on the inside we are thinking, "wtf?"

But I am getting off topic. Owl Service was interesting in the "I'm not sure what to think of it" way. Briefly, the book is about three kids, two English step-siblings Roger and Alison, and a Welsh boy, Gwyn. The English kids are on holiday with the family at their Welsh country house which was left to Alison, by her father who is deceased. The kids--teenagers--find a full dinner service in the attic. The dishes have what look like an odd flower pattern on them. Alison figures out that with some tracing paper and some clever paper turnings here and there, the design turns into an owl. After all the flower/owls have been traced off the plate, the pattern on the plate disappears. The Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd is awakened and the three kids are caught up in it and someone could end up dead.

I voted for the selection of this book because I was interested in the Welsh mythology aspect of it. I don't know much about Wales and its myths so I thought it would be a fun introduction. Unfortunately the parts of the book I liked least were all related to the myth. Whenever the myth was at the forefront of the plot, things got confusing.

Take out the myth and I thought the story was pretty good. I liked the historical cultural dynamic between the Welsh and English, and the Welsh themselves, trying to change their image from rural farmers to sophisticated cosmopolitans. There was also the servant dynamic tossed in to make relationships even more muddled. Gwyn, the Welsh boy is also a servant, or rather, the son of the servants. The kids get along until classism and English/Welsh prejudices rear their ugly heads and get in the way.

And I enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between the kids as they try to figure out the identities they want to claim for themselves. They struggle with choosing the ones that are being imposed by their parents or the culture at large or one they invent for themselves.

But then Blodeuwedd gets in the way and instead of the myth adding to and enriching all that the kids are going through, it detracts from it. The myth portions of the book seemed contrived, imposed, artificial. There should have been two books, one about three kids coming of age and one a retelling of the Bloeduwedd myth. Instead we've got one book that is--interesting.

Cross posted at So Many Books

But how do you pronounce that Welsh "ll"?

I'm pleased to say I've never had such rough going with a YA fantasy novel. My unfailing good taste failed once but The Owl Service's formidably "elliptical" writing style -- conversations are brief, emotionally fraught scenes are written with no dialogue, and important ones take place off-page -- provided a kind of reading experience I just didn't expect from a teen book.

I will not blow its subtlety out-of-proportion. The truth is that I took one look at the plot, read the first two pages, and at a glance wrapped and labelled it as a fun ol' quest through Welsh mythology, with thrills and chills and a gripping end. I was even a bit concerned that I wouldn't be able to come up with much of a post at the end of it all. It's so short (155 pages)! It's why I left it for so long. Usually I start a Slaves of Golconda book a month before the deadline: I gave The Owl Service only two weeks -- keep in mind that this is along with my usual 2 - 3 other fiction reads and Life.

The first reading was...not great. Everything started swimmingly, then characters started getting pissy with each other, kicking rakes and books, apparently Gwyn and Ali were (trying to be) an item, Roger and his Dad were elitist buttholes, Nancy was psycho, Huw really wasn't making any sense, there were killer paper owls on the loose, and I had no idea how to pronounce any of the proper names except Birmingham, Roger, Alison and Clive. (Do you know how distracting that is?) Plot developments seemed to leap out of hitherto non-existent corners and the ending was a big question mark. What is this book? I thought to myself as I slammed it shut. W.t.f.?

My reaction not only stemmed from displeasure but frustration. I sensed that the bewildering experience was not insignificantly my fault because I came in with a set of expectations that the book stubbornly rejected. I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have to the details, expecting that I'd still grasp a fair enough portion of the book's offering. It was a perilous mistake because this is a book that is entirely created out of small details, superficially unassuming moments, of single sentences and lines that carry great importance not only thematically, but on the most basic level - plot. I read up on the Blodeuwedd, oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet on Wikipedia (which kinda helped), searched for a trusty guide on Welsh pronunciation (simpler than English my butt) and embarked on a quick reread against the (alleged) author's expressed wishes. (That comment worked as a challenge rather than an admonition.)

I emerged from the darkness a second time clearer, my mind changed on most things and along with a better grasp on what I still found fault with. I find my negative criticisms on this score a bit galling -- especially after having to eat humble pie and admit the book wasn't that opaque if you just paid attention -- because they pretty much boil down to this: most of the characters were not pleasant to be around. There's Clive banging on about "barrack-room lawyers", the children's scornful attitude towards adults and, in Alison's and Roger's case, their utter lack of regard for those beneath their social class, Gwyn's violent temper, Nancy's crazy harridan routine -- all of it. Let the valley's power blow 'em up and have done with the lot; the sheep are peaceful and (could possibly) go well with curry.

I'd hate to think I fall into the class of readers who can only enjoy books that contain "likeable" characters with whom they can "relate". I know that the valley's antagonistic power was influencing the trio's behaviour, most obviously Alison. But much of it still felt inexplicable and lazy. Nancy is a one-dimensional psycho who hates her son (so he believes) and his father and doesn't mind smacking the former around to have things done her way. In the one moment when she mellows enough to give Gwyn some information on the house's former owners she comes off as a schemer rather than slightly mental. "But there isn't the pound notes in London to pay me for losing my Mr. Bertram, just when I had landed him high and dry," she said. Not very romantic, is it? Some may want to argue that it's due to the supernatural consequences of her generation's avoidance of their responsibility but I'm not one of those readers who can put everything down to the fantastical. "Oh, it's the valley, that's why she's mad!" doesn't cut it.

The women come off the worse in this book and no few understanding lines from Huw Halfbacon -- to be expected, as he seems to be the only sensible person in the lot -- when he and Roger talked about the Blodeuwedd myth can change that. Alison is little more than a passive conduit for nature's desire to have things set aright, and must be saved. I could understand and was sympathetic to her conflict between pleasing Gwyn and her mother when her own self-identity was in flux -- and this is more ably shown as not being all down to magic plates and pebble-dashed paintings. In her singular confrontation with Gwyn in which he again insists that she defy her mother's wishes to meet with him she shouts,

"Stop it...Stop it, stop it! Stop tearing me between you. You and Mummy! You go on till I don' t know who I am, what I'm doing. Of course I can see! Now. But afterwards she starts, and what she says is right, then."

"I only want you to be yourself," said Gwyn.

"And what's that?" said Alison. "What you make me? I'm one person with Mummy, and another with you. I can't argue: you twist everything I say round to what you want. Is that fair?"

That outburst gave her character and circumstances more dimensions than any other scene before or since that included her or any other character. It breathed life into her, made her seem more human over Gwyn's overblown operatics and Roger's flat insolence and tabloid past. Even during the first reading it stood out. Then she went back to smelling petrol and being possessed.

Her mother and Roger's exist off-page. From various character reports the first holds the family's best interests at ransom in the interest of her delicate sensibilities and the other caused some kind of scandal that the tabloids flogged, and about whom Roger is sensitive and very close-lipped. Unfortunately, his reserve works so well I could only muster some token sympathy and curiosity for what I imagined someone in his (vaguely) difficult situation must be going through. On the other hand, he's quite outspoken about his disdain for the Welsh, never hesitates to verbally lash a "servant" if she doesn't instinctively revere his precious photographs, and holds about 10 ml of respect for his father.

Then there's Gwyn, my darling Gwyn. I liked him best of all and it is his and Roger's privy thoughts to which readers are given the most access. He has a temper (wonder where he got it from? Couldn't say), an anguished, feebly returned attraction for Alison and an inherited connection to a centuries old myth, the reverberations of which could be fatal. He's ambitious, intelligent and resourceful. He's quite proud so when he willingly bares his vulnerabilities to Alison you can't help but melt. (Ok, I can't help it.) He thinks his mother hates him, and he never knew his father! You just want to hug him up. (Ok, I do.)

Lest you think he's perfect he also has a penchant for picking up a thing or two (or five) that don't belong to him. (Garner admirably resists moralising his behaviour or going to painstaking lengths to present it in as sympathetic a light as possible -- he puts it out there and you make of it what you will.) He's insolent to everyone and anyone at any moment, young or old. As a Jamaican perhaps I find this sort of thing more shocking as I find adult-child relationships here far more...casual, let's say, that I'm used to. It's not even deference I require here -- out of sheer frustration with the Halfbacon's seeming lack of corporation in solving the owl plate mystery Gwyn walks right up and kicks the rake out from under him; and I just couldn't buy that one would do something so physically aggressive for that reason. (Good thing he didn't have a taser -- Halfbacon would have had a heart attack by page 60 and then where would they be?) There are little moments like this peppered throughout the book in which characters show a basic lack of disregard for each other: it gave the book a general antagonistic, unpleasant tone. (I would not reread it again.)

But, but, but -- beyond characterisation I found the thematic development, the writing style and the reworking of the myth in the contemporary setting fairly excellent (despite the objections earlier comments implied). Garner is not the sort of author to lay all of his cards on the table. Plot points are revealed in indirectly, relationships are established in silent scenes, such as when Gwyn and Alison, near the beginning of the book, met each other in the hall, exchanged silent looks until she joined Clive and Roger, while Gwyn stalked into the kitchen to lower his head and grip the counter.

Garner also doesn't bother with what he judges as unnecessary description. I'm used to a more expansive writing style where movements and setting is told in some detail. In one scene Huw told Gwyn to descend from a tree in order to search for something underground -- in the very next line we read Gwyn's response after looking for it. Not one is used to describe the climb. Garner only describes rooms when entered and only goes into detail if it's helps to establish a certain mood or develop a point. Scenes that one would not have been surprised if they were included, like Gwyn writing and leaving Alison notes (or even a line or two about him thinking of it), are relayed second hand. Even the dialogue often had this abbreviated quality in which I felt gaps of information were missing even though the characters were on top of everything.

It's an appreciable change from the sort of books where the the effect is reversed and reader is the one with close to omniscient knowledge and the characters are the ones struggling, or both reader and character are armed with comparable knowledge of the conflict. Perhaps the most singular feature that built this experience was the notable absence of the author in the novel. It's one of the most limited third-person narratives I've ever read. Garner strictly keeps himself to minute descriptions of scene and action and let's the characters move the story along. No hand-holding here. In a sense it's a very generous kind of writing and is perfectly suited to show just how divergent reader reactions can be to the same book.

Final verdict? I appreciate The Owl Service but I don't like it. It's a demanding read and has the sort of flaws that cry out for engagement rather than in despair. For such a little thing it manages to contain a lot of meat to pick over and is, in that sense, not unlike Mercé Rodoreda's stories. Thanks so much, Ann, for recommending this read.

Cross-posted at The Books of My Numberless Dreams

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.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Owl Service

When I was asked to make suggestions for the current Slaves of Golconda choice I was hesitant about offering a selection of Young Adult novels, not because I think there is any paucity of excellent material available but because I know that I can’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for the field. Reading round people’s blogs over the past few weeks, I’m aware that the book that was eventually chosen has not found favour everywhere, but nevertheless, I am going to stick my neck out and say that I think Alan Garner’s novel, 'The Owl Service', is one of the great books of its time and still stands up today as a work in which not a word is wasted and not an idea explored that isn’t fully and precisely worked through.

Garner is not a prolific writer, indeed there have been only a handful of books in the forty years since 'The Owl Service' was published. His central concerns, however, never alter: a passion for the cultural memory held by the land and the communities that have lived in a particular place through the ages; a vision of the landscape itself as a living being actively involved in the shaping of those communities’ lives; and the importance of language and the cadences that belong to a particular area and the peoples who have worked the land there for generation after generation.

In 'The Owl Service' these general concerns find a specific voice in the centuries old and still continuing conflict between the disparate peoples of the British Isles, those of Celtic origin and those with Anglo-Saxon or Norman forebears. At the moment this is showing itself most strongly in debate about Scottish devolution, at the time the book was written the area of contention was the infiltration of the Welsh valleys by incoming English, buying up properties for holiday homes and destroying the countryside by damning the rivers to build reservoirs that would supply Midlands’ cities with water.

The novel is built around a legend that forms part of Welsh literary heritage collected as the 'Mabinogian'. In this legend the wizard, Gwydion, makes a woman, Blodeuwedd, out of the flowers of the oak, the broom and the meadowsweet and she is given in marriage to a local lord, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. However, Blodeuwedd falls in love with another man, Gronw Pebyr, and together they conspire to kill Lleu Llaw Gyffes. While the plot is successful Lleu Llaw Gyffes returns and not only kills Grinw Pebyr but also turns Blodeuwedd into an owl forced to hunt by night because rejected for her perfidy by all the other birds. One version of the legend can be found here.

Garner’s conceit, totally in accord with his belief in the power of the land to hold the tribal memory of the people who inhabit it, is that the anger unleashed by the actions of the the three protagonists still permeates the valley in which the events took place and that within each generation three young people will be forced to re-enact the tragedy until Blodeuwedd is able to find the peace of returning to her flower form instead of having to hunt as the owl. In this generation that means Gwyn, the descendant of Gwydion/Lleu Llaw, Gyffes, Alison, a teenager who has just inherited a house in the valley and her stepbrother, Roger. Try as they might to avoid the force of nature that they find themselves being controlled by they are brought to the point where Alison has to chose and Roger and Gwyn have to help her. I find Garner’s resolution of the story very interesting indeed, but more of that later.

There are so many things that I think exceptional about this book that I hardly know where to start. From the very earliest pages you can’t help but be aware of the land and the weather as a living being, exerting pressure on the actions of the humans caught up in its domain. After Roger’s encounter with the replaying of the first death, Garner tells us that '[t]he mountains hung over him, ready to fill the valley.' And it isn’t long before the landscape and the weather begin to work together to echo the growing tension.

'There were no clouds, and the sky was drained white towards the sun. The air throbbed, flashed like blue lightning, sometimes dark, sometimes pale, and the pulse of the throbbing grew, and now the shades followed one another so quickly that Gwyn could see no more than a trembling which became a play of light on the sheen of a wing, but when he looked about him he felt that the trees and the rocks had never held such depth, and the line of the mountain made his heart shake.'

As the story comes to its climax, so the combined forces of the weather and the mountainous countryside collude to keep the main players enclosed in the valley until the final moment when Alison must make her choice. For something else that Garner is concerned with here is the need for us to take responsibility for our actions and the last three generations have shied away from facing up to the choice, trying to channel the destructive force elsewhere. '[W]e gave this power a thinking mind. We must bear that mind, leash it, yet set it free, through us, in us, so that no one else may suffer.'

The valley has acted as a reservoir for that power, the actions of the previous generations having damned it and held the destructive force in. The metaphor for the destruction of those Welsh valleys used for English purposes is strong and the ancient animosity between the two peoples manifest in the relationships amongst the novels main characters. This is most often played out through the language, the easiest and most common source of mockery. Garner picks up and emphasises the patterns of the two tongues and yet at the same time he shows the dilemma of the Welsh, who in order to find a place in the world of work and education at that time, needed to speak English and preferably in a way that didn’t belie their origins. They needed to turn traitor to the very thing that held them fast and strong, their roots, their land, their language.

There are so many other things that I could discuss here: Garner’s interest in class; the issue of the role of women; the exploitation of a people’s heritage through the tourist market; the question of observer perspective - do you see owls or flowers? But this is becoming a very long post and so I’ll save those for the discussion. The one thing I do want to pick up on, however, is the ending, because I think it is significant and to some extent disheartening. Ultimately, it is not Gwyn who helps Alison to see flowers rather than owls, but Roger. Gwyn’s anger is so strong that he simply cannot overcome his own hurt, the hurt of generations, and reach out to help someone else. Forty years ago that may have been a reflection of the anger in the Valleys against the incomers, anger that lead to such acts as fire-bombing people out of their houses. Today, it brings to mind the development in Nationalism in all parts of the British Isles. While there is not the same transparent anger in the very air, there is a growing feeling that the various nations that make up Greater Britain, with their very different cultural memories, are going eventually to have to go their separate ways. I find that tragic, that we cannot share flowers but must once again be hunting as owls.

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which is where I am now blogging.