A Company of Liars
Which brings me to my personal experience of this. I’m a member of a local book club, and we recently took on (actually at my suggestion) Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. I’ve read this before, and found it a deeply engrossing, macabre and illuminating story with fascinating characters and an intricate plot. I’d picked this book up years ago since I very much enjoyed historical fiction and knew little about the period or theme it deals with. Set in 1348, and subtitled ‘A Novel of the Plague’, the book involves the onset of the Black Death in England, and the banding together of a disparate group of travellers in a desperate attempt to outwit (and outrun) the spectre of death. Each traveller comes with a baggage of secrets and lies, and a past they try urgently to conceal. The novel is narrated in the first person, itself often a device to suggest a degree of unreliability, deliberate obfuscation or questionable partisanship, and here this is no exception.
In advance of discussing the book I wanted to find some interviews and reviews, so I first checked out those on Amazon. Here I found that a number of reviewers had given low scores – but not because it was a bad book, rather, because it wasn’t the book they wanted and expected. Time and again I read that people, expecting a straightforward historical novel, had been both frustrated and angry that it had featured elements of the supernatural, feeling that as it was billed A Novel of the Plague, it ought to damn well have been a novel of the plague and nothing else. For some people, it seemed to be the literary equivalent of having been mis-sold PPI.
In Maitland’s example, rather than an established type of fiction that she then departed, we have a book that, whilst certainly fulfilling the strictures of the genre (Maitland is renowned for the depth of her historical research), has the temerity to include other elements that the gatekeepers of historical fiction refuse to countenance. Maitland has stated that her books include magic because the people who lived in those times believed it to be true, they lived and breathed superstition alongside their normal lives in a way we find difficult to grasp. It wasn’t so much that their rationality was found wanting, as their idea of rationality embraced both natural and supernatural. God, the Devil, witchcraft were all living, breathing forces, and to exclude those is to deny a large part of their reality.
This was further brought home to me by a comment from a member of the book club, who said that the very presence of supernatural ideas in the book made him distrust ALL of the historical research and information it presents. Magic makes of the author a liar, even though we establish (through the first person convention) that the narrator Camelot may well be a liar. Indeed, a close reading of the text doesn’t provide any unequivocally supernatural incidents. We can believe, or not believe, in the literal truth of what Camelot relates, and must decide for ourselves which side of the company’s credulity we fall.
Both these examples for me highlight the danger of confounding the expectation of readers, many of whom are unable to separate the author’s intention from their own preconceptions. The reader the projects their own frustration onto the book, and labels it ‘bad’ rather than ‘good, but not for me.’ In Maitland’s case, maybe that’s the fault of a marketing department that failed to establish a clear identity and thought appealing to fans of historical fiction a better bet than those who might enjoy books with elements of the supernatural, but the responsibility for the strength of the reaction still lies with the reader, and is proportional to the depth of their disappointment.