Monday, 16 April 2012

The Gallows Curse

I had found Karen Maitland's previous two novels The Company of Liars and The Owl Killers to be equally enjoyable and fascinating and was very eager to read her third book, The Gallows Curse. It continues with her usual themes of Medieval England's dark beliefs and fears and follows a small group of characters who lives and fates are intertwined.

Maitland usually uses an unusual and unique narrative style. In The Company of Liars, we do not truly discover who the narrator really is until the end of the book and The Owl Killers switches between five very different narrators resulting in various viewpoints of the story. The Gallows Curse is strangely narrated by a mandrake (a legendary plant with a body attached to the roots, which screams when ripped from the ground.) To be honest, I felt this didn't work very well as we are only reminded of the narrator a few times throughout the book and it doesn't feel like a true 'character'.

The mandrake has a curse to fulfil and is passed on to an innocent young villein called Elena. Unfortunately as well as the mandrake to contend with, she also unwittingly takes on her dead Lord Gerard's sins in the ancient art of 'sin-eating' (eating salt and bread above his dead body). The novel is set during the time of the Interdict - when England was ex-communicated from the church by the Pope, thanks to King John. Therefore nobody was able to confess sin or receive the sacrament, with the people believing they were going straight to hell to endure eternal torture.

Elena begins to dream awful visions and believes herself capable of being a murderess, so when her baby is born, she gives him away to keep him safe. The villagers have heard of her dreams and believe she has killed him, so she is sentenced to death. Raffe, Gerard's steward and best friend, feels responsible and saves her life, but the only 'safe' place he can think to take her is a brothel in Norwich, ran by a vicious dwarf called Mother Margot. There she must stay away from the new lord of the manor who wants her dead and has many people out looking for her.

I did like the characters of Elena and Raffe, but not as much as some of the characters in Maitland's previous novels. There are some controversial subjects covered and as usual do not be expecting a happy ending! Be warned - there are some disturbing and grotesque scenes, certainly not for the faint-hearted!

The Gallows Curse is full of colourful characters and violent deeds, plus an insight in to Medieval beliefs. Each chapter begins with an extract from 'The Mandrake's Herbal' with an explanation of the meaning of various ingredients from cabbage to mistletoe. The exclusive Waterstones edition I have also has an extra section at the end which reveals more behind the dark tales with information on pregnancy, holy relics, wolves and werewolves and corpses at crossroads. There are references to all of Maitland's novels so I definitely recommend this edition if you would like to know more. There is also an extract from her new novel Falcons of Fire and Ice which is released later this summer...

Watch Karen Maitland talking about The Gallow's Curse below and for more information about her books and Medieval myth and magic log on to

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