In 1348, a group of people, strangers, come together in an attempt to out run the plague as it spreads across England. Nine strangers in all, each with a secret, something they can only reveal at the risk of losing their lives.
The narrator is a seller of phony religious relics. He is joined by two Italian musicians, a master and his apprentice on their way to the next town, unable to return home to Italy for reasons they will not disclose. Soon they meet a an unmarried couple on the run from their parents. Because she is pregnant they join an entertainer with a wagon she can ride in sitting alongside the ‘mermaid’ preserved in a glass jar, the main feature in the entertainer’s show. The last members of their group are a young girl who reads the future int the runes she casts and the woman who accompanies her. As they flee northwards, they form a very uneasy alliance and they tell stories, their own well as others.
It’s all very like a dark Canterbury Tales.
Company of Liars is a very entertaining, a highly literate, air-plane book. It’s very much a melodrama akin to a Victorian sensation novel, or perhaps Michael Lewis’s Gothic novel, The Monk. The secrets each character keeps are extreme enough to shock; some even offend modern sensibilities. Ms. Maitland lets their revelation play out slowly, teasing her readers, almost goading them, to keep reading with a playful sense of suspense. Company of Liars isn’t a thriller in the narrow escape from death sense of the genre, but the sheer volume of secrets revealed keeps the reader glued to the pages just as well.
If you read historical fiction in order to learn about a period of time, Company of Liars will deliver the goods. Ms. Maitland presents a wide range of Medieval England’s under-belly. Becuase no one in the company is a respectable citizen, thehistory presented in Company of Liars is not the history learned by careful study of court life or church history.
However, Company of Liars is not without a few problems. First, the dialogue is very contemporary. It’s not anachronistic, there’s no one telling anybody to “shut up” or “get back to me,” but listening to Ms. Maitland’s characters talk I felt they could easily be sitting at the table next to me in the coffee shop. This is probably a concession to modern readers that cannot be avoided–any attempt to make the characters sound medieval risks making them them sound pretentious as well. But everyone sounded very American to me. Second, while I’m willing to accept that nine random people could all have very dramatic secrets, I had trouble believing that only one of the nine would be dramatically offended by their revelation. The other eight are remarkably tolerant, especially for the mid-14th century. Honestly, I would have a very hard time accepting some of the secrets the characters hide. And, I did guess seven of the eight secrets well before they were revealed.
But even with these reservations, I’d still recommend Company of Liars by Karen Maitland very highly. If you happen to find yourself on an airplane headed towards England, or anywhere else this summer Company of Liars will keep you well entertained.