Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Nine little pilgrims

Although it is billed as "a retelling of The Canterbury Tales", Karen Maitland's Company of Liars shares only a few similarities with that famous work. Both works take place in the 14th century and concern a band of travellers, but they are distinct stories.

The band of travellers in Company of Liars has no specific destination. They are merely attempting to stay one step ahead of the plague which is ravaging towns throughout England. The group consists of (my spelling of character's names may be off, since I listened to the audio book):

Camelot -- the narrator of the story, who makes a living selling "religious relics"

Zoffiel -- a magician

Rodrigo & Joffrey -- a musician and his apprentice

Adella & Osmond -- a young couple expecting their first child

Cygnas -- a storyteller with one human arm and one swan's wing

Narigorm & Pleasance -- a 12 year old fortune-teller and her nurse

Each member of the group tells stories to entertain the others, or sometimes just to explain how they came to be where they are. The characters all have something to hide, and eventually, like in a good Agatha Christie novel, they begin to be killed off one by one. It is also wintertime, so in addition to the plague, the characters must struggle with difficult travel conditions, bad weather, lack of food, and the vexing problem of where to bury the bodies of their dead companions (since they don't want to arouse any questions from the authorities about how the unfortunates met their deaths).

There were several surprising "twists" at the end of the story, which made the book all the more enjoyable. The author also includes a section of historical notes, explaining the various plagues that ravaged England at the time and the superstitious efforts of the people to ward off the sickness. There is also a glossary at the very end to explain terms used throughout the book.

Final verdict for Company of Liars: Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating story of life in plague times and for holding the reader's interest until the very end

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