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Review: Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland
Delacorte, 2008. 465 pp. $24

“All England was rotting,” observes the narrator of this daring, dark, intricate novel, and there’s no arguing with him. The year is 1348, and not only has a terrifying plague cut down humans and beasts alike, torrential rains have ruined harvests. It’s a tossup which will kill first, pestilence or famine, but either way, the air stinks of decaying corpses.

Pieter Breughel the Elder's painting of the Black Death (Courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid, via technology.org. Public domain).

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562 (Courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid, via technology.org. Public domain).

A street peddler, or camelot, who makes his living selling fake religious relics, sets off toward a town where, he believes, he has a chance to outrun the plague. Hoping to move fast, he wishes to travel alone, but happenstance dictates otherwise. The traveling party keeps growing until it numbers nine. They include a young girl with pure white hair; an Italian musician and his pupil; a sadistic con man; a young couple expecting their first child; a healer; and a young man born with one arm as a stump who believes he’s descended from swans. As the journey lengthens and becomes dangerous in ways the travelers could not have foreseen, they tell symbolic, allegorical stories about themselves.

Anyone familiar with The Canterbury Tales will recognize the intentional parallel to Chaucer’s masterpiece, so already, Company of Liars is an ambitious novel. However, those looking for the ribald comedy of the Wife of Bath or the Miller will find something else entirely, for, unlike the original, the plague and famine remain central here. Moreover, those threats, though constant, endanger the travelers less than the people do each other. As the title suggests, each has a secret to protect, and what they’ll do under those circumstances leads to terrible crimes.

Maitland, a psycholinguist with a splendid grasp of history, has portrayed this plague year in frighteningly vivid words, re-creating landscape and mindset. The mud, filth, carrion, gloom, prejudice, and fatalism leap off the pages. The absence of clerics to perform church services, the hatred leveled against Jews and foreigners, the business of selling amulets, the nightmarish rituals people perform to ward off the disease–they’re all here, and more.

The author also renders her characters in fine, believable detail, with a psychological acuity that allows her to incorporate grand themes without dragging them in by the heels. She’s got good versus evil, religion, xenophobia, superstition, injustice, and, perhaps most of all, hope.

Early on the camelot remarks:

Hope may be an illusion, but it’s what keeps you from jumping in the river or swallowing hemlock. Hope is a beautiful lie and it requires talent to create it for others. And back then on that day when they say it [the plague] first began, I truly believed that the creation of hope was the greatest of all the arts, the noblest of all the lies.

His antagonist, the sadistic con man, disagrees:

To hope is to put your faith in others and in things outside yourself; [in] that way lies betrayal and disappointment. . . . What a man needs is the certainty that he is right, no self-doubt, no fleeting thought that he might be wrong or misled. Absolute certainty that he is right–that’s what gives a man the confidence and power to do whatever he wants and to take whatever he wants from this world and the next.

I wonder whether Maitland was thinking of politicians when she wrote this, for it explains the bizarre lies told during our current election cycle better than anything else I’ve heard or read.

However, gripping as Company of Liars is, the novel tries for too much, adding a murder mystery to everything else. The narrative struggles to make all the pieces fit, playing a nonstop shell game between witchcraft and reality. Medieval folk believed implicitly in magic, so the confusion makes sense, sort of, but the camelot’s narrative voice derives from an accurately observed, realistic world. (I’m no fan of magical realism, and I like it even less when the two styles mix.) Further, the mystery fails to hold up, because the criminal’s identity is no surprise, despite skillful red herrings. Moreover, the guilty party is a sociopath, a solution that I’ve always found too neat.

That said, I finished Company of Liars and was glad I did. Maybe you would be too.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.