Tuesday, October 14, 2008

"Company of Liars"

Karen Maitland has traveled and worked in many parts of the world, from the Arctic Circle to Africa, before finally settling in the medieval city of Lincoln in England. Her British debut novel, The White Room, was short-listed for the Authors’ Club of Great Britain Best First Novel Award.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her latest novel, Company of Liars, and reported the following:
Company of Liars is set in 1348, the year the Black Death entered Britain. A group of strangers are thrown together as they flee across England, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the plague. The travelers – an Italian minstrel and his apprentice, a painter and his pregnant wife, a conjurer, a one-armed storyteller and a silent albino child – are led on their journey by Camelot, the narrator of the story, a scarred old peddler who trades in fake holy relics. Each of company has a story to tell. But no one is who they appear to be. As one by one, they are forced to reveal the truth about themselves, they realize with horror that they are being pursued by something even more deadly than the plague.

On page 69, the travelers have found themselves caught up in a bizarre ancient custom known as ‘The Cripples Wedding’. This scene is based on historical fact. People believed that if they married the two most wretched people in their village together in a graveyard at the community’s expense, it would save the village from the Black Death. The practice was widespread in Medieval Europe, and the last recorded case I’ve found took place in Krakow, in Poland, in the19th Century.

Camelot has just witnessed the humiliating spectacle in which the bride, who is blind and eaten-up with arthritis, is forced to consummate the marriage in the graveyard in front of all the villagers. Though Camelot likes to portray himself as cynical, he feels great compassion for the woman. He tries to comfort her in the only way he can, by giving her the ‘relic’ of a saint.

Page 69 also conceals an important clue to something which will happen much later in the novel, for unknown to Camelot, that apparently harmless ‘relic’ will come back to haunt him and will be used against him with devastating results.

Extract from Page 69:

So what if she had no choice in her bridegroom? In that, she was no different from any highborn lady in the land, even a merchant’s daughter. For if land, trade or money is entailed, then marriage is simply a business transaction to be negotiated by the parents. Many a bride on her wedding night has passed from girl to woman with her eyes tightly shut and her teeth clenched, praying it will soon be over. No, all things considered, you could argue that the crippled bride had been treated no worse than any royal princess. But then, the flames of a fire are not made less painful by the knowledge that others are burning with you.

I took out of my scrip a little wisp of stiff coarse hair bound up with a white thread and placed it in her lap. She touched it tentatively, a puzzled expression on her face.

“A wedding gift for you, a relic. A few hairs from St Uncumber’s beard. You know of St Uncumber?”

She slowly shook her head.

“Her real name was Wilgefortis. She was a princess of Portugal whose father tried to force her to marry the King of Sicily, but she’d taken a vow to remain a virgin, so she prayed that the Blessed Virgin would make her unattractive to her betrothed. Her prayers were answered with a beard that sprouted on her face. The King of Sicily withdrew in horror when he saw it and immediately called off the wedding. But the princess didn’t have to live long with her beard. Her father, in a rage, had her crucified. Now women pray to her to be unencumbered from their husbands or any burden they bear. You could use this to pray for that too… if you wished.”

As I turned to go, she pressed her two hands tightly against the relic, the tears coursing once more down her hollow cheeks. A wisp of hair is not much to pin your hopes upon, but sometimes a wisp is all the hope you can give and it can be enough.

Read an excerpt from Company of Liars and listen to the Company of Liars podcast.

Learn more about the author and her work at Karen Maitland's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue