Sunday, 5 February 2012

January Book Group - The Owl Killers

Our first read for 2012 was The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland. Set in a remote Norfolk village in 1321, the natives ruled by superstitions and the notorious owl masters become suspicious and afraid of a group of foreign women who set up camp nearby. As floods and disease threaten to destroy their livelihoods while the women's community thrives, the villagers become certain of witchcraft and call on the owl-men to get rid of the strangers.

Below are a few questions we discussed during our reading group meeting with a few brief thoughts on the answers. Please feel free to add any more comments.

Did we enjoy the book?
Most of us did enjoy the book and felt like we learnt a lot about life in the Dark Ages. We enjoyed the narrative style and the insight of various character's thoughts, but felt a little let down by the brief and enigmatic ending.

How did the style of narration add or detract from the book?
The Owl Killers alternates between first person narration from five different characters - Servant Martha leader of the beguine, Beatrice a member of the beguine who has suffered from various tragedies, Agatha / Osmanna daughter of the lord of the manor forced to join the beguines, Father Ulfrid the village priest and Pisspuddle a village child with no name. Although a little daunting at first, we all got used to the names and voices of all the characters and found it interesting to see events through all their eyes. We agreed that not all the characters were reliable with their stories as fear made them describe events that may not have happened - for example seeing a demon in the forest at night. At times it was a little frustrating as we wanted to hear more or less from a certain narrator and some story lines were shortened or left out.

What did we learn about the time the book was set in?
The superstitions and omens that the villagers lived their life by was very interesting to read about, for example owls were seen as a sign of death. It was also interesting to read about religion, with villagers needing to pay both taxes to the manor and tithes to the church. With no tithes, there would be no church to support them, which was a major difficulty during times of flooding and disease. The views against women were unsurprising, especially the controversy around Servant Martha giving the host to her women. None of us had heard of the concept of beguines before and were surprised to learn there are still communities existing today in Europe. We were also interested in the story of Andrew, the anchorite, claiming to live on the love and words of God alone.

How big is the relationship between fear and imagination?
Some of the narration is distorted as the characters reveal what they thought they saw rather than what they actually saw. For example at the beginning of the book, Osmanna is certain that she was attacked by the owl man and that a demon is growing inside her. The villagers have many fears to contend with - the manor, religion and the owl masters as well as the beguine. Father Ulfrid is afraid of his secrets being revealed. The downfall of the beguine is when Servant Martha, who had previously dismissed the superstitious stories of the owl man, admits his presence, therefore terrifying the other women. Once they give in to fear, nothing is the same again.

How is the link between name and identity used?
There are many examples of this in the book. We were all very surprised when it was revealed that Hilary was a man (an early chapter deliberately fools us into thinking he is a woman), Andrew the anchorite is a woman with a man's name and Pisspuddle the village child has no name, but is very much the voice of the village. The leaders of the beguine are all called Martha and each member is re-named after a saint when they are accepted into the community. Agatha certainly matures after she is given the identity of Osmanna, although her feisty, stubborn personality is still present.

What did we think of the primary characters?
Servant Martha - we liked and admired her, although she was stubborn and out of touch with the younger members of the beguine. She wasn't a great people person, but was loyal and brave.
Beatrice - although she had been much sadness in her life, we were unsympathetic to her selfishness and self-centeredness, especially her attitude towards Osmanna. We also blamed her for the arrest of Osmanna and the downfall of the beguine.
Agatha / Osmanna - we really liked Osmanna as she had a strong personality with her own views which she stuck to throughout the whole book. We really felt sorry for her when she crumples towards the end of the story.
Father Ulfrid - not a nice character at all! Out for himself and terrified of his secrets being revealed, he reacts to fear in a bad way.
Pisspuddle - we saw her as the voice of the village and she was one of the rare characters who was involved in both communities. She is used by adults throughout the book, but ultimately has her own views.

What did we think of some of the secondary characters?
Phlip D'Acaster - not a nice character and not in as much power as he thinks. We expected him to be involved a lot more in the story than he was.
Pega - we all agreed that we really liked Pega and could relate to her the most. She was the most contemporary character in the book and was able to mix with the villagers while being a member of the beguine. She is able to change her mind about people without stubbornness and after originally disliking Osmanna, she goes to great lengths to save her.
Healing Martha - loyal to Servant Martha, when she is injured it soon becomes apparent that she was her right arm and the true leader of the beguines.
Gudrun - the spooky child that Beatice adopts as her own after originally being scared of her. We are not sure if she really did have some supernatural powers or if the other characters just believed the stories about her.

This is a great reading group book, as there is so much to discuss. Many issues are covered within the book and it is set in fascinating time of history. I would also recommend reading The Company of Liars by the same author which is just as enjoyable and covers some similar themes. You can find out more about Karen Maitland on and she will be appearing at Windsor Library at the end of February.

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