Having read ‘The Owl Killers’ by Karen Maitland, I knew I had to read her other books. And I was certainly not disappointed with ‘The Gallows Curse’.
This dark supernatural tale, set in medieval Norfolk, is narrated by a mandrake, for it is through a mandrake that the many threads of this rich, vibrant story come together.
The book is set during the period of English history called the ‘Interdict’, during the reign of King John. It was an uncertain time; the King had fallen foul of the Pope and as a consequence the church in effect ceased to operate. There were no church services, no marriages, no baptisms, no funerals, no absolution to be given for sins and no masses to be said for the dead.
The story centres around a villein (a serf tied to a medieval manor and considered the property of the said manor), named Elena. Her wants in life are simple: to marry the boy she loves and have a family, but the will of others and the hands of fate have other plans.
As the story unravels, we encounter treason, espionage, curses, magic, revenge, an evil Lord of the Manor, a cunning woman, tales from the Crusades as well as a medieval brothel. One thing’s for sure, I didn’t expect the tale to end the way it did! There are so many twists and turns that the author not only keeps you guessing as to what will happen next, but ensures that you will struggle to put the book down until you have finished it.
Karen Maitland has a unique gift: the ability to convincingly transport her readers to the darkness that was the Middle Ages, when life was often short, hard and brutal. But we are also shown that there could be brief glimmers of joy and light also.
The book is completed with detailed historical notes, outlining the historical background to the story as well as a glossary explaining local dialect words alongside medieval terms.
Also, in an edition exclusive to Waterstones, Karen Maitland explains 25 pieces of medieval superstition and folklore, including ‘Raven of Death’ and ‘A Corpse at the Crossroads’, which in itself made for very interesting reading.