Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The past as present: Garner's THE OWL SERVICE

Alan Garner's Red Shift was so odd (see here), and the man possessed such a following overseas, I had to see what else he'd done, and so I ordered The Owl Service, a novel more clearly aimed at younger readers (or at least amenable to a younger reader). The book feels familiar, its structure and tropes now thoroughly dispersed into a hundred other fantasy tales in which young people unpack a mystery and find themselves to be the keys to its cause and solution.

I was never quite sure how young these young people were, which connects to my primary complaint about the book, so let's deal with that first. When he can, as evidenced in Red Shift, Garner likes to avoid narrative exposition (though his prose is dense, lovely, and full of unexpected choices). In Red Shift, this led to Garner dropping all transitions that might adequately address the passage of time or characters moving from one place to another, so dialogue chiefly carried one along. The Owl Service is much more accessible in this regard, though Garner does like to have someone react audibly to something before he tells us what it is. Nevertheless, the opening of the book introduces us to three youngish people without making clear their relationship to each other. Eventually, it gets sorted out, but I can't see a good cause for delaying such useful information, information that would provide a context for the conversations we hear.

In short, the novel, which I blew through in one day (not that I skimmed; it was an engaging story), concerns an English family staying at a place in the Welsh countryside, a house and grounds the daughter of the blended family has inherited from her late father. Her mother, often mentioned, is on the premises but does not appear in a single scene—a pleasant enough bit of narrative fun, though I waited in vain for this to figure into the larger plot. Something scratching about in the attic (which no one seems appropriately troubled by) leads the teens—the girl, her step-brother, and the housekeeper's son—to discover a "service," a set of plates decorated in a pattern that the girl traces and turns into owl stencils—which sets in motion a host of supernatural events.

The book strongly reminds me of Red Shift in its connection of landscape with plot. In Red Shift, three sets of characters are linked, across time, by geography; the landscape, one understands, is haunted both forward and backward in time. The Owl Service ties the present events to a tale from the Welsh myth cycle the Mabinogion; a set of mythic events has recurred over the centuries, and it's all happening again as a bound feminine power breaks its shackles. How this manifests itself is, in some moments, frightening and strange, though what exactly has transpired is not terribly clear (and a personal secret that seems to reveal necessary information ends up complicating things, I think).

It's funny that Garner has one of his characters complain about the "elliptical" statements of the mysterious Welsh gardener (the typical fool-who's-truly-wise, though he's portrayed well), since the novel ends up relying for much of its mystery on just such elliptical pronouncements as well as half-explained events. The story comes together quite nicely in its climactic moments, but the absolutely final scene, the true climax, falls flat, as if the narrative were simply switched off; additionally, Garner leaves no aftermath to the tale, so when the storm has passed, as it were, the book abruptly ends.

I have to read such books with an eye and ear toward what a middle-school-aged American reader might take from them. Assuming someone gets past the frustrating elisions of the opening section, the story should pull them along. Better readers, especially those who've read other English novels (The Secret Garden will utterly prepare them, given its reliance on the relationship between social class and dialect, a theme foregrounded here as well), should be able to navigate the non-American elements and language, but plenty of other readers will find themselves at a loss long before the somewhat unsatisfying end.

ADDENDUM: A friend's comment that I missed the clash of cultures and class—which I didn't—leads me to think I need to say more along those lines than that anyone who's read The Secret Garden (or Lady Chatterly's Lover) will recognize the particularly English social-sexual tensions. Once Garner makes it clear that the household contains the working-class housekeeper and her son, both of whom are Welsh, he foregrounds those issues of social division, and I think those elements are the most coherent and successful elements of the novel. The relationship between the family's daughter, Alison, and the housekeeper's son, Gwyn, which is meant to parallel the Mabinogion tale (though I thought that fit awkwardly), generates much of the book's tension. No one wants these two to be together, and it's implied that the concerns are sexual as well as social. Gwyn is trying to rescue Alison from the kind of powers he knows reside in this myth-laden landscape, but he's often prevented from doing her any good. As it turns out, the sexual history of the region is itself complicated and a source of all these unchecked (female) energies. Language, too, is a major concern, loaded as it is with social weight, and it's another check against Gwyn, who aims to speak like a non-Welsh. These elements of the narrative are so strong, the supernatural aspects get underplayed for a fair portion of the novel, but Garner does well when he makes the landscape and people conspire to keep young Gwyn from forsaking his culture and destiny.

No comments: