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I think perhaps I came to this book from a rather unfair perspective - having just finished the absolutely gripping, un-put-down-able 'Heartstone' by C. J. Sansom. As a great lover of both history (recent History Masters graduate here! Just had to get that in, haha!) and good literature (working in a bookshop) I devour any and all historical fiction I can find. Wolf Hall by Mantel, The Pillars of the Earth by Follet, pretty much all of the Philippa Gregory series (however much it embarrasses me to admit it), Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Dunant's Italian historical trilogy, The Book of Human Skin by Louvric, Umberto Eco's 'Name of the Rose' and of course, the masterpiece of all series, C. J. Sansom's Shardlake series.
Therefore, 'The Gallows Curse' was always going to have a tough job, since I really do have such high standards for historical fiction writing (or any writing, really!) And I am afraid to say, that while Karen Maitland's novel was dark, supernatural, brilliantly researched and packed full of historical knowledge, it unfortunately left me a little cold.
So, let's start with a brief synopsis. The year is 1210 and King John is on the throne. However, after a recent barney with the Pope, England now lies under a Papal Interdict. Babies lie unbaptised in their cradles, corpses lie in unconsecrated ground, and the people of the land are ravaged by fear of their sins. In a small village in Norfolk, our heroine Elena finds herself drawn into a diabolical scheme to absolve a dying lord of his sins, unwittingly bonding herself to our tortured, repulsive anti-hero in the process, and paving the way for a dangerous plot of violence, backstabbing, double-crossing and treason to unfold.
All this happens under the watchful eye of the story's narrator, Yadua the Mandrake, a root that was widely considered at the time to have magical properties. It is in her retelling of ancient folklore and superstition that Maitland finds her greatest strength. She had obviously done a great deal of research on the subject, and it shows. It really adds a sense of mystery and feeling to the whole plot, and I would imagine that without it, the novel would fall completely flat. I really enjoyed how the start of every chapter included information about the use of certain herbs and animals, and the superstitions that peasants believed. Maitland also found a nice way of weaving that information into the storyline, which gave the plot much needed depth.
Nevertheless, I found there to be a lot of little things that niggled me about this book, which all piled up to converge into one great big niggle, that has now affected my rating. And so, on we go...
This is an adult story. There's death, mutilation, sexual licentiousness and rape. Exotic creatures, poison, a paedophile and a dwarf-sized prostitute. But it all seemed a bit too... forced? I can see Karen Maitland's editor on the phone, crying 'More, Karen! We need more realism! More death! More violence! More grit than you can shake a stick at! More interesting and colourful characters than you can ever believe!' It just all felt a bit too much.
There was nothing particularly stretching about the plot. Sure, there were twists and turns, but I felt like I'd seen it all before. Many reviewers claim that they felt as though they were transported back to the time. I don't agree. Although the novel is meticulously researched, I felt the descriptions of the towns and villages and people were shallow and repetitious. The language was a little pedestrian. I definitely felt there was something lacking.
In particular, it was the cast the let this novel down for me. They felt more or less like predictable clichés - the wise old woman with an ancient grudge, the young, naïve heroine who finds her 'inner strength' at the end, the angry, haunted anti-hero, the madam with a secret heart of gold... no thanks. There was some roundness and depth to a couple of the characters - Master Raffaele for one, (but I have a bit of a thing for tortured Byronic heroes!) and the previously mentioned old cunning woman who lives in the forest. However my main problem lay with the heroine of the novel, Elena. Some of the things that happen to her in the books are truly awful, but I found myself struggling to care. I did not find myself emotionally engaged with her at all, which in my opinion, is the death knell for any novel.
So there you have it. I have seen 'The Gallows Curse' compared to Ken Follet's 'Pillars of the Eath,' which is, in my humble opinion, laughable. Don't get me wrong, by no means is this a 'bad book.' I feel with all my moaning, some of you might be tempted to completely pass it on the bookself, which is not what I intended. It's good, but not great. Enjoyable, but not gripping. I could guess the ending a mile off, and where each of the characters was headed. All in all, if you want something entertaining that you will fly through in a week, this is for you. But for seriously epic, absolutely enthralling historical fiction, I'd look elsewhere.
The Gallows curse is the third book by English author Karen Maitland, it is set in 1210 during a period of turmoil for England when the pope ex-communicates the whole realm as a punishment for King John's behaviour.
Karen Maitland is an author who has so far only written historical fiction novels, all her novels have been set in the early middle ages and feature strong peasant characters rather than the actions of kings and queens. Her first book, a company of liars was the best book I read in 2010 and was set in the time of the plague in 1340.
The Gallows Curse
The Gallows curse is set in and around Norwich and Yarmouth and tells two interlinked stories; the first is that of Elena a young girl who has been given a chance to be a ladies maid servant. She is young, intelligent but deceives the lady and her Steward Raffaele, Raffaele is a man who when in his youth had his male parts removed to allow entry into a church choir. Raffaele is now in his early forties and wants Elena to become his ladies maid in waiting but has other more suspicious activities which Elena doesn't about.
Raffaele is a former man at arms only recently returned from the holy lands and has secrets from his past which haunt him, Elena employed as a virginal helper to the lady of the manor has secretly lain with a man and is carrying a child. The book tells the story of the two characters from the first meeting to the final climactic chapter, Elena is the innocent girl given life by her laying with a man and Raffaele the tortured gentleman who can never begat life. Both have secrets from each other and both will ultimately bring the other down.
Karen Maitland brings alive the period of King John's interdict, the king has antagonised the pope so much that the pope has removed the church from the country, this means that with the exception of baptisms no other church blessings will occur. This means that there will be no marriages, blessed burials and confessions, the country is really on the edge of lawlessness due to the people having no course to getting acceptance for their actions from the church. The village where the book is set at the start is a small one, the church has shut, burials are simple and no marriages can take place so Elena's child will be born out of wedlock.
However, Raffaele is really the main character in the novel, scarred from childhood he is intelligent, aggressive and determined to get things done but his problems only escalate once he employs Elena. His character is the driving force and one which slowly dominates, his is the first time the author has used a male as a main character and she brings alive the character of a man from a forgotten culture.
The book has a huge amount of old world mysticism and witchcraft, throughout there is a wise woman character, each chapter is prefaced by a page on the various powers of herbs, animals, trees and flowers and there use in witchcraft.
The book starts with the discovery of a mandrake and its offering to a wise woman for poison to kill a hated knight, of course this isn't how the poison is used and the death of a lady and the birth of a son of a knight's mistress are the spark for the events to come. The son becomes a lord of the manor, he turns into a bully and his actions change forever the lives of Elena and Raffaele. There is also a lot on the powers of dreams and there use to view future events, Elena dreams of terrible events and as a cause goes to see a wise woman.
Karen Maitland has become along with CJ Sansom the best modern writer of historical fiction; she fills her character with life and the gritty nature of her characters give an insight into how life must have been for the average peasant. She does favour strong female characters and in Elena she continues that approach in this novel, the book doesn't perhaps have the strong linear plotlines we saw in A Company of Liars but the book still works as a novel set during troubled times.
Finally, the book has a satisfying ending and brings together all the loose ends before ending with a bang. However, there is a sense of the story of Elena and Raffaele as not quite finished and it does leave this reader hoping for a sequel.