Company of Liars: a novel of the plague by Karen Maitland is a great yarn. Set in England in 1348 it tells the tale of a group of people fleeing across the country as the plague moves inland from the ports. The narrator is Camelot, a pedlar. A “camelot” in medieval times was a person who also carried news and had a reputation for trading in goods that were not always genuine. This Camelot is no exception, scarred and with only one eye, pedalling relics such as skeins of Mary Magdalene’s hair, “white milk of the Virgin Mary in tiny ampoules no bigger than her nipples” and “hair from the very ass that bore our blessed Lord into Jerusalem”. Camelot is an unreliable narrator.
As you would expect from the title the members of the group, a conjuror, a one-armed storyteller, a musician and his apprentice, a young couple on the run, a mid-wife and a strange child who can read the runes are all liars, with secrets that gradually exposed as they journey on. Some secrets are not that well hidden and I’d guessed them all before the end of the book.
They make their way from Kilmington on the south coast through Thornfalcon in Somerset (where incidentally we stayed last year in an old farmhouse) heading north to North Marston in Buckinghamshire seeking the shrine of Sir John Schorne. He was the rector of North Marston and had discovered a well, the waters of which were reputed to have miraculous healing powers. The shrine had become a popular place of pilgrimage after Sir John Schorne’s death in 1313. Camelot thought they would be safe there as the pestilence would not reach it before the winter frosts came killing off the plague. However, they are thrown out of the pub where they were staying and forced to move on after trouble with the locals.
I also liked the storytelling in the novel – it’s not only Cygnus, the storyteller but each character has a tale to tell, some obviously tall stories, mingling magic and myth. Cygnus is a strange character with his left arm that wasn’t an arm but the pure white wing of a swan. A sense of menace develops as it is not just the plague they are fleeing from – there is a hue and cry out for Cygnus believed to be the killer of a little girl and they are being followed by a wolf, howling in the night. Their safety is also threatened when Jofre, the young apprentice musician gets drunk and is then found dead, presumably killed by a pack of wolves. But strangest of all is the white-haired child Narigorm who seems to be controlling events.
This is a memorable story, with a colourful cast of characters. It’s a long book (over 550 pages) and there are many other characters than the group of nine. Yet I had no difficulty keeping track of who was who and it was actually a quick read as I was keen to know what would happen next. It is full of suspense and drama.
I liked the fact that the places in this novel are real places and that the details of the plague, its causes and ways of dealing with it are based on fact. Thornfalcon is not the only location in this book that is familar to me. North Marston is not far from where we live and so we went to have a look at the shrine. It was renovated in 2005.
Also in the shrine is a boot representing the boot in which the rector whilst exorcising a man suffering from gout is said to have captured the devil. Apparently the devil made himself as small as a beetle and flew away through one of the lace-holes.
This is how the well looked before it was renovated in 2005. For more photos see here.
The shrine is near to the parish church, which dates back to the 12th century. The inner part of the tower is from the 15th century, whereas the stone in the outer walls were all replaced between 2002 and 2004.