Alan Garner’s The Owl Service

First of all, thanks to Ann for choosing Alan Garner’s young adult novel The Owl Service for the Slaves of Golconda selection; I always want to read new types of books, and this qualifies, as I generally don’t read much young adult fiction. Perhaps I should read more. So thank you Ann!

I feel ambivalently about this book, though. What it comes down to is that while there was much in the novel that made me think, I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it as much as I thought I would. I’m happy to have plenty to analyze as I read along, but I really wanted to get lost in the story, especially as it’s a young adult novel, and I never found myself fully absorbed in it. I felt distanced the whole time.

The novel tells the story of three young people who are vacationing in Wales; Alison and Roger are half-siblings and Gwyn is the son of the housekeeper. They discover a set of plates in their attic with a mysterious pattern on them, a pattern that when Alison traces it, creates owls. The pattern afterwards disappears, though, and so do the owls Alison has made. Soon the threesome notices a whole series of odd events, including strange scratching noises, objects unexpectedly moving, and walls crumbling apart. Gradually, with the help of Gwyn’s knowledge of Welsh folklore and information from the odd figure Huw Halfbacon, they figure out they are witnessing the resurgence of an old legend about a woman created from flowers who betrays her husband for the sake of a lover.

I began reading the book with no knowledge of this legend, and had to piece it together as I read; I think I might have felt less confused and have enjoyed the reading more if I’d been familiar with it to begin with. It took a long time for the pieces to come together. Rather than enjoying this process of figuring everything out — which is partly what reading is all about, of course — I felt there was information I should have had but didn’t.

The dialogue also felt odd to me, and perhaps this is simply a cultural matter, but the characters talked as though they were older; I had trouble believing they were teenagers. I had to re-read many passages of dialogue because the language and, even more so, the rhythms of their speech felt strange.

But I was fascinated by the class issues the novel portrays, and the way these issues touch on language. Gwyn’s mother chastises him for speaking Welsh because she wants him to leave his rural roots behind:

“You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.”

But Gwyn is drawn to the people and the culture of the Welsh countryside, intrigued by Huw Halfbacon and his mysterious pronouncements. He’s also self-conscious about his accent, however, and worried about whether his mother will allow him to continue his education, and whether that accent will hamper his progress. In one of the novel’s most painful scenes, he wants to borrow Alison’s gramophone to listen to records teaching elocution lessons. He is mortified when Roger finds out about this and mocks him for it.

As the son of the housekeeper, Gwyn is constantly reminded of his outsider status, and often cruelly so; Roger teases and belittles him, and when Gwyn begins spending more time with Alison than the others think proper, they make it clear they do not approve and that they will do whatever they need to to make sure he stays away. Gwyn is a hugely sympathetic character; it’s impossible not to feel for him as he struggles with his attraction to Alison, his worries about his mother, and his curiosity about all the mysteries that surround him, including that of the identity of his father.

So, again, I’m glad I read this, even though I had mixed feelings about it — I do enjoy reading books that make me think, even if a lot of what I’m thinking about is why I’m not loving them.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

8 responses to “Alan Garner’s The Owl Service

  1. musingsfromthesofa

    I like The Owl Service but I still don’t know what to make of it. It disturbs me every time, even while I’m drawn to the idea of the legend. I think you are right about the language, now that my attention is drawn to it. It’s not ‘natural’. But it is how plenty of (middle class) children in literature from that same period sound, so I was probably just used to it. That extract you include has a Welsh lilt to it as well, I think.

  2. Well, now I’ve had three takes on my favorite Alan Garner book, and find it very interesting that all three had mixed feelings about it. I, too, was fascinated by the whole class aspect (I’m always fascinated by that). I agree with Becky about unrealistic children’s dialogue and how so much is written that way that I’m used to it.

  3. Becky — it’s interesting to know that the language was conventional in literature at the time — context always helps make sense of things!

    Emily — have you read other Garner books? How do they compare?

  4. You know, I didn’t like Gwyn much until he finds out Alison told Roger about the records. Then I felt a lot of sympathy for him. It was an interesting book and definitely not what I expected.

  5. Not what I expected either, Iliana! But that’s all right — I wouldn’t want every book to be what I expected :)

  6. I’m getting to everyone’s posts on this book so late, but it’s interesting to read what people think. I didn’t know anything about the legend either and had to stop and try and look it up and read about it to try and put the story in perspective. The language was a little hard to get used to, too. I was thinking that this would be a great book to listen to on tape with a good British (or Welsh) reader, so I could hear it as it was meant to be spoken. I guess this was made into a movie (perhaps TV movie) and I’d love to be able to see it, though I doubt it is available over here.

  7. Danielle — oh, interesting, I didn’t know about the movie. And I agree that listening to it would be fun — as long as it was a second reading, not a first — that would be confusing!

  8. I want to know where can i find the book on internet? is theres a place where can i dowload it? cuz i can not find it here in Argentina and its very difficult for me to buy it, becuz the devaluation of the euros, dolars, etc. its just very difficult for me to acces to it! so if anyone can help me i will be soo eternally GRATEFUL!!!

    thanks

    mario

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