"How's the bellyache, then?" Gwyn stuck his head round the door.
–Alan Garner - The Owl Service - c.1967,2007
Alison and Roger have come to Wales on a holiday with their parent and respective step-parent. Roger’s father and Alison’s mother have recently married and in a way this is a sort of bonding session. The house is technically Alison’s, she inherited from an uncle. Gwynn is the housekeeper’s son, the same age as Alison and Roger but very much not of the same class.
Have I mentioned that this book was written and set in the 60s? Because they really needs to be in your mind when reading it.
Alison has been hearing strange scratchings from the attic and when Gwynn goes up to investigate he discovers a dinner service, he takes a plate down and almost immediately Alison becomes somewhat obsessed with the pattern. It appears to be flowers, but Alison can also see an owl in the flowers.
Those of you who are familiar with Welsh legends might be thinking, hmmm, flowers. Could this have anything to do with the myth of Blodeuwedd? Well, if you’re thinking that you’re perfectly correct.Oh I have many thoughts about this book. Many many thoughts.
First off, I’m sure I read this as a child and had absolutely no idea what was going on. I’m pretty sure I also caught bits of the television adaptation, but I don’t remember any of that, apart from a general sense of weirdness. A description that definitely fits the book.
I really enjoyed it1 , it is just so strange. Garner describes it as a ghost story, and it almost feels like you are living through these crazy unexplained events because so much is just described. There are some reasons provided, and we get the myth of Blodeuwedd and that tragedy to underpin it all, but there is so much more than just the supernatural aspect to the book.
Most of the book, as I said, is descriptions of what is happening right now. There is very little internal monologue or expressions of what different characters are feeling. Not that there are none, but they are almost like dialogue that just isn’t spoken aloud. I’m not doing a good job of explaining this, am I.
The setting is very much in the here and now2 yet also about how the present is shaped by the past and the mistakes people make, and seem to make over and over again.
It is full of classism and prejudice. Alison comes from the land-owning classes. Roger’s father is wealthy but a business man. Gwynn is the working class boy, the servant. He is also Welsh and there are numerous snide remarks about that. Of course the reverse is also true, the Welsh resent the English for the very fact that they are English.
It is one I think you have to read to get any grasp of what it’s all about.