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The Gallows Curse by Karen Maitland

The Gallows Curse (2011)

by Karen Maitland

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Mandrake root has been believed to be capable of many, many things, but who knew it also had narrative talent?

Such is the conceit of The Gallows Curse, in which a mandrake root tells the story of various intrigues taking place during the reign of King John the Worst*, aka John Lackland, specifically during the height of his dispute with Pope Innocent III over who got to pick the Archbishop of Canterbury, which, as the main flow of this novel opens, has not only resulted in John's excommunication but also in, effectively, a complete interdiction on church activity in John's dominions. While neither the King nor the Pope exactly chose this, their dispute left all the parish priests and bishops so afraid that most of them fled or went into hiding.

Result: no one can take confession. No one can get married. No one can have a Christian burial. Et cetera. With interesting results, conceit #2 being -- and I cannot dispute this or call it far-fetched in any way -- that the interdiction had the effect of driving good Christians at least partway back into the arms of a paganism that still survived at least insomuch as there were "cunning women" and all sorts of lively superstition still abroad in Merrie Olde, which superstitions and folk beliefs are cleverly disclosed between chapters in the form of extended quotations from something called the Mandrake's Herbal.

More specifically, The Gallows Curse involves the story of some returned crusaders who variously compelled or were compelled to perform an especially hideous act, the nature of which is kept secret through most of the novel. All we know as the story begins to unfold (told, as I say, by a mandrake root, though we could easily forget this for long stretches that are indistinguishable, narratively, from any other novel written in good old First Person Omniscient, without the odd reminder here and there in the form of the mandrake root's breaking the fourth wall and making a direct observation -- which, I'll confess, I found a bit disappointing, wishing that Maitland had tried harder to invent a real and unique narrative voice for the mandrake narrator) is that it was bad enough to weigh so heavily on one's conscience when he lays dying, and dying unshriven, that his best friend, Raffaele, resorts to tricking an innocent local girl into acting as a sin eater over his friend's corpse.

Much of the rest of the novel's plot spins out from that simple action, and while we spend far too much time with the local girl, Elena (who is, of course, not as innocent as she gave out she was when she was engaged by Raffaele; in fact, she was pregnant when she ate his friend's sins, which causes all sorts of interesting trouble later on), her course brings us into contact with some pretty interesting characters, many of them Bechdel-passing females of considerable wit and strength and interest -- they would not be out of place in a Dorothy Dunnett novel -- and, weirdly, into the heart of a plot against King John.

But chiefly for me, the interest in The Gallows Curse lies in its exploration of what the world would be like if all of the folk beliefs in the Mandrake's Herbal were true, if sniffing a marigold every morning would keep you from getting sick, if carrying certain seeds made you invisible, if tying a sack of live mice around your neck would get rid of a cough, etc. Maitland does a pretty good job of imagining the inner lives of people living in that kind of world, something I've wanted to see every since I encountered the made-up academic disciplines of Clement Hollier in Robertson Davies' wonderful The Rebel Angels.

I did have to put this book on pause for a while, though. Like a lot of snobby readers (cough! SJ! cough!) I have some rage-triggers. Overuse of "whilst" is one I share with SJ, but I have one that sends me into tantrums worse than that, and one that writers employ all the damned time. I'm talking specifically about a phrase that gets slipped in when describing beverages. God, why do you writers keep doing this? Do you think it's sophisticated? Clever? Original? It's NOT. Anyway, I'm talking about mentioning a beverage, say, wine, and then, usually within the same sentence, then describing it as "the [color] liquid." So one might come out with "'This beer is good,' Blah said, sipping (sometimes "quaffing") the amber liquid." Or in this case, one character offers another a flagon of wine and he pours "the ruby liquid." STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP.

But anyway, that's just a pet peeve, and after a few days enjoyment of less doltish prose (that being The Six Directions of Space and some Patrick O'Brian), I returned to this gladly, because I wanted to see where the story was going, even if it was mostly with (sigh) Elena. And really, rage trigger aside, there is some nice prose here. And lots of inventiveness. It was worth getting over my ire, it really was.

And here I have to give a shout out to my own dear personal mom, who recommended it to me, albeit indirectly. When BooksFree finally punted on providing this and several others on her wish list, she decided to punt on BooksFree and finally let me get her an ebook reader, and agreed to share with me a list of as many of the titles she was missing out on as she could recall. Of course my sister and I got them all for her, to fill her new reader! Anyway, it wound up being quite an intriguing list. This is the first of those I've read -- I was sucked in by that fantastic cover art! -- but it won't be my last, and it won't be my last Karen Maitland, either.

Especially when I see via GoodReads that lots of people do not consider The Gallows Curse to be her best work!

*Wink to you fans of Disney's Robin Hood. ( )
  KateSherrod | Aug 1, 2016 |
It is the early 13th century and Eleanor of Aquitaine's son, John, is on the throne of England. Elena is young and unmarried when she becomes pregnant. While pregnant, Elena dreams of murdering her baby.
After the baby is born, when she is accused of actually murdering him, she flees with the help of Raffaele.
Unfortunately, from there, things go from bad to worse for Elena. Then even worse, still...

I listened to the audio, and although I thought the narrator was very good with various accents and voices, there were just too many times where my interest waned. I missed more than I would have liked to. Overall, though, I'll still rate it ok. Always hard to tell ahead of time, but I might have enjoyed it more if I'd read it instead of listened. ( )
  LibraryCin | Nov 21, 2015 |
It is the year 1211 and England suffers under an Interdict imposed on King John by the Pope: the churches are closed, there are no confessions, babies go unbaptised, couples can't marry, there are no last rites and the dead are buried unshriven and without funeral services. When the lord of the manor of Gastmere dies, his steward takes the desperate step to appoint a sin eater, Elena, a local villein, but without her knowledge. Soon her dreams turn to violent nightmares. At the same time, a French spy appears to be living at the manor, and the steward has his suspicions as to who it might be.

It was fascinating to read about this period in history, which I didn't know of before, even though the actual story is the weakest out of all of Karen Maitland's books I've read so far. I'm not entirely sure why that is, as some of the characters are among the strongest (Raffaele, the steward, and Ma Margot, the brothel madam). It's a real slow burner, and for great lengths of its 550+ pages there doesn't appear to be much happening, yet the novel is incredibly rich in atmosphere and did keep my interest right to the end as I wanted to learn of Elena's fate. As always, the author has added some much appreciated historical notes and a glossary after the story per se has finished. ( )
1 vote passion4reading | Jan 8, 2014 |
Far to be gripping as Company of Liar, this book walks slowly till the end being quite enjoyably but lacking of the mistery and originality that is expected from this kind of book ( )
  diniak | Jul 25, 2013 |
I wasn't as riveted by The Gallows Curse as I was by Karen Maitland's first book, Company of Liars. Part of that was the fact that I've been writing essays, and I haven't had a gallstone attack that could just keep me up all night with nothing to do but read! And part of it is my reluctance to end up with no more of her stuff to read...

Like Company of Liars, it's somewhat slow paced, based on a build up of tension that really works for me and might infuriate other readers. I like Karen Maitland's interesting conceits of narration, and her way of ending stories -- it might get a bit annoying if every book has this kind of sting in the tail, because it'll stop being surprising, but so far I've enjoyed both of them. The Gallows Curse had a few more loose ends than Company of Liars, I think, and I didn't care about the characters as much (though Raffe is a truly awesome anti-hero), but I still liked it a lot.

Maitland's range as a writer is quite exciting: I've got The Owl Killers to read, and then I look forward to reading her future works. She does her historical research well, and weaves in fascinating supernatural threads, and still has talent left over for a deft touch with characters. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 2013 |
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"I need poison...now...this very night."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
The thirteenth-century is just begun and King John has fallen out with the Pope, leaving babies to lie unbaptized in their cradles and corpses in unconsecrated ground. Across a fear-ravaged England, the people are dying in sin.
In the village of Gastmere, this has shocking consequences for servant girl Elena. Unwittingly drawn into a macabre scheme to absolve dying Lord Gerard of his crimes, death and betrayal haunt her dreams like a curse.

And when Elena is threatened with hanging for a murder she did not commit, it is certain that unnatural conspiracy lies behind these dark deeds. But where can she turn? For in every face lies wickedness and in every shadow lurks treachery . . .
Haiku summary
Elena has to
Fulfil the gallows curse and
Be a sin eater.

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1210 and a black force is sweeping England. For a vengeful King John has seized control of the Church, leaving corpses to lie in unconsecrated ground, babies unbaptized in their cradles and the people terrified of dying in sin.

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