Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is far from being a new book, either to me or in terms of its publication history; it was originally published in 1967, but I first read it as a teenager and it’s been one of my firm favourites ever since. The edition I have dates from 2002.
Recently, I went on a bit of an Alan Garner binge and read three of his books in the space of a couple of days. The Owl Service is the one that stuck most in my mind.
This book is powerful, in every sense. It’s about an ancient story being brought back to life in a ‘modern’ – i.e. 1960s – Welsh valley, accidentally, through the involvement of a group of children thrown together for a long, fraught summer, and throughout there is mention of the ‘power’, the sleeping power of the older story, which is gradually waking. Garner manages to imbue his book with this same power; you almost feel as though you are as much a part of the story, and of the story-within-a-story, as any of the characters. The language is cryptic at times, the dialogue fragmentary, the setting claustrophobic – but it all works perfectly.
We meet Alison, her mother Margaret (who is never actually seen in the book, merely mentioned by other characters), Margaret’s new husband Clive and Clive’s son Roger. They are taking their first holiday together as a family since Margaret and Clive’s recent wedding, and Alison and Roger are learning to negotiate one another as step-siblings. They go to stay at a country house in the Welsh countryside which had belonged to Alison’s late father; he bequeathed it to her, and her sense of being the ‘owner’ of the house, but not the one with the power over it (as it is her mother and stepfather who are responsible for running it) is a pervasive theme. Alison’s father inherited the house from his cousin Bertram, who was killed in the valley at around the time Alison was born, under mysterious circumstances. Despite this, however, he is still a central character in the story. The house comes with staff – Huw Halfbacon, the groundskeeper, and the cook-cum-housekeeper Nancy, who – for her own reasons – chafes at the bit in her role, and feels resentful at having to work there at all. There is also Nancy’s son, Gwyn, The three teenagers, and their at times tense relationship with one another, is the pivot around which this book turns – for they are not just Roger, Alison and Gwyn. They are part of a larger tale, one which has been told time and again for centuries, and which has always worked out the same way – with a death.
As the story opens we are in Alison’s bedroom. She has just heard scratching noises coming from the attic above her head, and she enlists the help of Gwyn to get to the bottom of it. In the roof they find a stack of plates – a full dinner service – all of which are decorated with a complicated floral motif. Immediately, Alison is gripped by the design on the plates. She sees it differently to everyone else; where they see flowers, she sees owls, and she begins to trace the pattern compulsively onto sheets of paper, over and over, cutting it out and folding it to make a three-dimensional model of an owl. As quickly as she makes her paper owls, they vanish – but nobody will admit to having taken them.
And, as soon as she’s copied the pattern from the plate, it disappears.
In the recreation room, the plaster starts to come away from a recently patched-up bit of wall. Behind it lies a painting of a beautiful woman with an intense stare, which must have been there for hundreds of years – yet Huw Halfbacon, a man who seems to mix his own life up with the legends and stories of Wales, declares it was his own uncle who painted it. The tension between the children, and indeed the adults, grows to almost unbearable levels as the rest of the plaster falls away and the lady is revealed in her full glory – and then, one day, she disappears, too, leaving only a bare wooden wall behind.
‘She’s come’, says Huw.
But who is ‘she’?
Garner mixes his tale of three fractured children, all of whom have, in some sense or other, lost a parent and who are all looking for their role in life, ready in one sense to step into their future while at the same time not being certain where that future will bring them, with the tale of Blodeuwedd, the woman made of flowers, who appears in the Welsh epic poem The Mabinogion. In mythology, she was created by Gwydion as a wife to Lleu, but she betrays him for the love of another, a man named Gronw. She then encourages Gronw to kill Lleu, and is turned into an owl as punishment. Blodeuwedd, her power and frustration and rage, is the spirit which haunts the lives of all in the valley, and because she was awakened there her story is played and replayed there, over and over. Roger, Alison and Gwyn are only the latest in a long line to play the roles.
This book is a marvel of characterisation, dialogue, subtlety, suspense and atmosphere. Clipped conversations, the use of Welsh instead of English (though the book is written in English throughout), the clash between the social classes (very much evident in the way Clive and Roger treat characters like Huw and Gwyn, and as Margaret is reported to do too, in terms of making fun of their accents and aspirations), and the oppressive nature of the house which contains too many people and too much history is just perfect from start to finish. Of course, it’s a little ‘of its time’ in its terminology and technology, but that’s easily overcome. The power and timelessness of the story will draw in even the most modern of readers.
If you haven’t come across this one already, I’d counsel giving it a go. Highly recommended.