Saturday 1 April 2023

Alan Garner, The Owl Service

 I wonder if I would've loved The Owl Service the way I just have, if I hadn't (a) only just read it now, as a 43 year-old and (b) it wasn't only my second Garner, after reading Treacle Walker over the summer break?

The Owl Service is one of those childrens' books I've always had a shadowy, but baseless, perception of. Whenever I've seen the book mentioned, I've had a mental plot picture of a group of plucky children (pre-teen), out in the night in the English country-side (shading into the wilds of the forest) and a flight of owls streaming through the dim sky, back to their hollow oak (do owls hang out in groups? also that hollow oak is totally sourced from the owl in Mrs Frisbee and the Rats of N.I.M.H.). 

Naturally, it's not anything like that. Nor is it anything like the rather bitter Guardian reader-contributed review that pops up when you google "Owl Service reviews" which opens "The Owl Service tells the story of Alison, Roger and Huw who discover a mysterious dinner service in the loft" and concludes "Not one of the best reads ever, but take a look anyway. Preferably get it from a library not a bookshop, as you probably won't read it again."

Instead, it's an elliptical collision of ancient Welsh legend and 1960s youth culture and class war, set in an isolated Welsh valley, played out largely through dialogue and potentially deeply frustrating if you're not content to pass by all the things Garner leaves unsaid, and instead hone in on what is given to you.

What I loved about Treacle Walker was the timelessness of it: not in the sense of being a story for all time (The Owl Service is pointedly more than) and more in the sense of it being very hard to allocate a time period for it. The Owl Service is thoroughly located in the 1969s however, and Garner makes no attempt to disguise technology (phone booths, portable record players) or slang.

It is the story of Alison, Gwyn and Roger (though arguably just as much so of Roger's father Clive, who has married up by virtue of his bank account to Alison's mother ("her people were surprised"), and Gwyn's mother Nancy, hired on to return to the valley as cook and housekeeper for the family's summer holiday, and Huw Halfbacon, the mysterious man of all jobs who maintains the property). And it is the story of how they are drawn without volition - by the power of the valley - into playing out an ancient legend of love and jealously, of Lleu Llaw Gyffes and Blodeuwedd, the wife made for him out of flowers, who fell in love with his friend Gronw Pebr. The lovers murdered Lleu, who was brought back to life by magic, and then slew Gronw by casting a spear through him and the boulder behind which he was sheltering, at which point Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl to punish her. 

Garner doesn't go into anything as crass as a time-loop or time-travel (although time is allowed to loosen in the narrative); instead, we watch as the three lead characters both detect the lines of the story and are compelled to play it out. At the same time they are detecting the traces of the story as it has played out before in the generations before them.

The aspect of the book I loved though - which I doubt every much I would've appreciated if I had read it as a young teen - was the class battle that plays out through it. Nancy, with direct spite, and Huw with more humble misgivings resent and dislike Clive and his wife, who play lord and lady of the manor - at the same time, Clive talks Nancy down, pays her off, and belittles Huw. And Nancy's son Gwyn is that class-breaking striver, the smart kid sent to the grammar school, who secretly buys elocution records to help pull himself up through the social classes and out of Welsh rural life. The battles between Nancy and Gwyn over his aspirations, the code-switching and anger played out between Gwyn, Roger and Alison, are in some ways the truly timeless aspect of the book, the time capsule you pull out to understand other people's lives.

In his postscript, Garner repeats his career adage: that he does not devise stories, but unearths them "the sensation of finding, not inventing". While the story may have been gifted to him through years' of experience, acquaintance and chance, Garner's spare language, incredible ability to create a tautly compelling environment out of air and rocks, his comfort with leaving chunks of the story unexplained (what is going on with Alison's invisible mother??) bring the book into being. I don't think kids today would like it at all. I absolutely loved it. 


For a recent riff on similar subject matter but with a more lush, 1980s-inflected delivery, I love and continually recommend Garth Nix's The Left-handed Booksellers of London