Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland
Reviewed by Rima Walker
As the Black Plague moves through England in the winter of 1348 and the rain never ceases to fall, a scarred one-eyed man, Camelot, a seller of relics, starts north to find sanctuary, accumulating eight others who are fleeing the plague (and other problems), each with mysterious secrets they keep well hidden. The company consists of Rodrigo and Jofre, two Venetian musicians, Zophiel, a magician with little love for his fellow humans, the pregnant Adela and her husband Osmond, Cygnus, a man with one arm and a swan’s wing in search of his other wing so he can fly, Pleasance, a healer, and a young white-haired child named Narigorm, who casts runes and tells the future. Intriguing? Oh yes, and the reader can’t put the book down until all is revealed and the characters suffer the consequences of their terrifying secrets.
Based on the structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, rich with details of medieval life and told from the point of view of Camelot, the band moves from place to place in harrowing weather with little food or shelter to sustain them, trying to stay a step ahead of the plague. In a world of inequality divided between the rich and the poor, ruled by the power of the church and equally by deep superstitious beliefs in demons, witches, werewolves, strange rituals such as the Cripples’ Wedding, anti-Semitism, and magic, the characters encounter others who are starving, scared, cruel and brutal while some show some depth of human feelings. The plague has rendered the country chaotic and created a total breakdown of the social order amidst the most horrifying of conditions.
Camelot is the most developed character, a loner but wise, and though he fears death, he is kind and believes in the power of hope. To Rodrigo, music is life: “To squander the gift of music is worse than murder”, and while he sees the self-loathing Jofre squandering his, Rodrigo’s heart is breaking. Osmond loves painting as he loves breathing but is clearly in trouble involving his very pregnant wife, Adela. Zophiel is a misogynist who causes strife among his fellow travelers and believes hope is for the weak. Pleasance stays in the background as much as possible, but her secret leads only to her mysterious death. And then there is the soothsayer child, Narigorm, who destroys as many of the others as she can, even though she is just a little girl. Camelot wonders when she prophesizes if she sees the future or tries to create it.
Thematically, the book is not so much about the plague as it is about its effect on the European lower and upper classes, the breakdown of social mores leading to chaos, the fear and helplessness in the face of the unknown, the status of the clergy, many of whom are corrupt, the inequalities and the sufferings of people who rarely lived past the age of 50. Though the ending is weak despite its ultimate surprise, Maitland’s attention to detail and ability to spin a web of great intrigue against a horrendous backdrop makes this book a thrilling and compelling read. ~