Alan Garner has been a unique voice in British fantasy since his first novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, was published in 1960, followed by a direct sequel, The Moon of Gomrath in 1963, Elidor two years later and The Owl Service two years after that. Only one novel appeared in the 1970s (Red Shift, already reviewed on this blog along with the first two), then there was a pause of over twenty years before Strandloper, followed by Thursbitch and finally Boneland in 2012. He has also written short stories – I have an anthology in my reading pile.
There are two powerful elements which inform his stories. The first is his deep knowledge of British history and mythology; the second is a very strong sense of place which comes through, of both the visible geography and the magic that can lie beneath it. The author I am most reminded of is Robert Holdstock, and I think there may also be a flavour of Keith Roberts, whose novel Pavane made a strong impression on me long ago – I really must read it again.
Like most of Garner's stories, The Owl Service is set in the present day (well, the 1960s when it was written!) and focuses on a family on a long summer holiday in a remote house in central Wales, in a valley surrounded by mountains. We gradually realise (Garner doesn't go in for infodumps, readers have to work things out) that the family consists of a man and his new second wife, plus two adolescent children: his own son (Roger) and his wife's daughter (Alison). The other characters are a housekeeper and her adolescent son (Gwyn), plus a gardener who appears to be somewhat soft in the head (Huw). The storytelling viewpoint switches between the three children. One oddity is that while six of the seven characters are well drawn and very distinctive, constantly appearing on scene, Alison's mother hardly appears at all.
The discovery of an old crockery service decorated by stylised owls and flowers sparks a puzzlingly strong reaction in the housekeeper; the uncovering of a painting of a beautiful young woman also causes consternation. These both seem to be linked somehow to an ancient Welsh myth which appears to be coming to life once again and in which Huw plays a central role. As the tensions between the characters rise and their differences emerge, are the children in danger?
Garner has been characterised as a childen's or young adults' author, but judging by Red Shift he evolved away from that – it was more of an experimental novel in style; clipped, elliptical and with little description, focused mostly on dialogue. There is a flavour of that in The Owl Service: there are atmospheric descriptions of places, but the reader has to gain understanding of what is happening primarily through the conversations between the characters. This is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement that Garner makes his readers work a little harder than most authors.
The book is short (less than 200 pages) and I read it in two sessions. What was most significant to me – and sadly uncommon these days – was that I was really keen to pick up the book again and read the second half, I was so drawn into the world the author had created. My only complaint is that the ending seemed very abrupt and unexpected.
I already have all of Garner's other novels on my shelves or in the reading pile except Strandloper, which I am about to order. He is a distinctive author who is well worth reading.