by Alan Garner
Interests: mystery, magic, horror, folktales, Wales
220 pages, 27 chapters
Next: The Mabinogion (book of Welsh legends containing the story of Blodeuwedd)
Also by the author: Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brinsingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Boneland, Red Shift, The Stone Book Quartet
“She is here, the lady. She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. Always it is owls, always we are destroyed.”
Three teens in a Welsh country house discover a set of dishes in the attic and unleash powerful forces dating back hundreds of years, to a Welsh legend of romance, magic and murder. Events seem destined to repeat forever in the valley unless Gwyn, Alison and Roger can break the pattern of jealousy and violence.
A fantastic, haunting mystery with many an unexpected and eerie turn. The whole thing begins with the dishes. Alison notices owls amid the flowery pattern and begins tracing them and cutting them out, only the little paper owls keep disappearing and the pattern vanishes from each plate she traces. This is what releases the spirit of Blodeuwedd, who was created from flowers to be a lord’s wife, but became the centre of a deadly love triangle. The three young people begin as allies in the mystery of the plates but the magic of the valley soon drives them apart, and they form their own triangle, echoing tragedies of the past. The mystery is heightened by the animosity between the housekeeper Nancy (Gwyn’s mom) and Huw, the groundskeeper and the only person who seems to understand what is going on. Gwyn and Nancy are also at odds over his education – she wants him to have ambitions beyond his class, wants him to strive to be more English and less Welsh. The upper middle class Alison and Roger are step-siblings, and their parents have only recently wed, so they’ve got their own troubled family relationships to work out. As Alison and Gwyn grow closer class differences contribute to the distrust and outright animosity between the three.
This is an atmospheric tale that doesn’t slow down to connect any dots for the reader; it’s both challenging and unforgettable. (The nuances of class, the history of Welsh-English antagonism, and the 1960s British teen slang will make this book a bit even more of a struggle for young North American readers.) The supernatural episodes are bizarre and chilling, though happily free of the violence and gore of modern horror stories. I particularly liked how the nearby villagers provide a creepy backdrop to the story, so at ease and gossipy about the valley’s curse and the tragedy to come.
A stunning book which adult readers will enjoy as well, The Owl Service is a challenging read in terms of figuring out what is going on, and its complex themes of class, history, romance and teen angst will be best enjoyed by pre-teen or teen readers.