Newest Review: ... barney with the Pope, England now lies under a Papal Interdict. Babies lie unbaptised in their cradles, corpses lie in unconsecrated groun... more
Bawdy and brutal, but somewhat lacking!
The Gallows Curse - Karen Maitland
Member Name: Ventilicious187
The Gallows Curse - Karen Maitland
Advantages: Enjoyable, meticulously researched.
Disadvantages: Shallow characters, pedestrian writing.
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.
Summary: An entertaining read definitely, but I won't be reading a second time.