The Owl Service (Alan Garner)

I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed this book until now. I read it when I was little, and it scared me quite a lot at the time. Now that I am not as much of a scaredy cat I can see it for what it is: an impressive novel originally intended for a juvenile readership but, as these things tend to do, ended up being just as popular with adults. A remarkably subtle and complex fantasy that could also be classed as weird fiction for young adults. The style is fast-paced, sparse, and doesn’t patronize the reader with pages, or even paragraphs of scene-setting. (By the way– it may be bad luck to gaze at an owl. That’s why I chose such a bland cover above instead of the more striking ones featuring our nocturnal feathered friends. Don’t want to tempt fate…)

The subject matter, the story of Blodeuwedd, is something I’ve been especially interested in ever since. Two English teenagers, Alison and Roger, have been brought to a quiet Welsh valley by Roger’s father Clive and Alison’s mother (who remains offstage throughout the novel and interestingly, becomes one of those characters of whom we can only draw a picture from the conversations of others) to stay for the summer in a house which once belonged to Alison’s Uncle Bertram. The house is also home to the mad gardener Huw, the surly and possessive housekeeper Nancy and her ambitious son, Gwyn.

The reader learns all they need to know from the action, the language and the conversations. The name of the valley is never mentioned, nor even the village, yet within a few pages we are able to find our feet and things immediately start getting weird. Alison, ill in bed seemingly with stomach-ache, is plagued by scratching noises from the attic above. Gwyn, sent to investigate, discovers only a dinner-service with a complex floral design around the edge of each piece. Alison discovers that when she traces the design and cuts it out, elements of it can be folded to produce the stylised body of an owl. The paper owls disappear as she creates them, and with them, the design from beneath the glaze of the plates.

Garner has based this book on an excerpt from the Mabinogion in which Gwydion, a wizard, creates a woman out of flowers for Lleu Llaw Gyffes. She is called Blodeuwedd, but she falls in love with Gronw Pebyr who slays Lleu. Gwydion resurrects Lleu, who in turn slays Gronw, and as revenge, has Blodeuwedd turned into an owl. It seems that the power of the wizard is still bound by the valley and the emotional and physical triangle is repeating itself down through the ages, finding candidates in each generation to re-enact the drama of Lleu, Blodeuewedd and Gronw in order to release the power stored in the valley.

Huw, Nancy and even long-dead Bertram have secrets of their own which are not fully revealed until the final chapter. It makes some oblique points about Anglo-Welsh relations without being obtrusively politically correct, but on the whole the Welsh/English divide is mostly employed to create tension between Gwyn and Roger, and to give Alison’s mother a reason to want to keep her daughter away from him. There is an understated element of sexual tension, which begs the question as to whether this isn’t a novel about the awakening of sexuality with the power of the valley acting as a metaphor for the onset of sexual need.

Gwyn and Alison are obviously attracted to each other, but there is never any overt admission of this, either verbal or physical.The structure is interesting, in that it is based on the interpersonal dynamics of two sets of triangles, the background triangle being that of Clive, Huw and Nancy whose differences seem irreconcilable, set across divides of class, sex and race, and the secrets Nancy refuses to divulge and which Huw is incapable of explaining lucidly. No doubt this is why Alison’s mother is kept ‘off the page’ as she is involved in neither triangle and would upset the balance of the structure. Some of the language seems a little archaic now, but I can’t help feeling that this adds to its charm. Highly recommended.

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