A second look at The Gallows Curse, by Karen Maitland
This is the third novel by the highly talented Karen Maitland in her historical novels. Her debut novel, Company of Liars has sold over 70,000 copies, and was followed by the similarly successful Owl Killers.
Set in the early thirteenth century, it recounts a time when King John having fallen out with the Pope has had an interdict issued, preventing the undertaking of Christian rites within the country. This leave people terrified of living and dying in sin; their souls to be tormented for eternity. In a time of incredible superstition, England becomes a fear ravaged country…
The book begins with a prologue where a sorcerer is duped into committing murder, and sent to her death she issues a curse that spans for years.
The book has a pseudo narrator, which is a mandrake, (a root plant associated with magic and sorcery), who sets the scene in terms of legend and myth. Also each new chapter is preceded by an entry of the Mandrake’s Herbal, which gives you a fascinating insight into the superstition and ritualisation people associated with different plants - the considered acquisition of plants and what must done to avoid harm or tap into their positive properties.
The core of the story pertains to a servant girl, Elena, who has an unprecedented opportunity to work in the manor for Lady Anne. Raffaele, a close friend of Ann’s deceased son is captured by Elena’s striking looks and innocent demeanour. Equally responsible for choosing Elena to support Lady Anne, he acts as an unswerving protector despite wide felt disdain. Concurrently and dramatically the manor has also been taken over by the bombastic and cruel Lord Osborn, who relishes acts of violence and terror. This makes for challenging and unpleasant times, when life is already harsh and brutal.
Elena shortly after giving birth to a son is accused of murdering her child. Disliked by her would be mother-in-law, her perceived crime, is announced to Osborn, who orders her hanging, despite not a shed of proof. With Raffaele’s help, she escapes, but now hunted, her only chance of being kept safe is in a brothel in Norwich. This is not before she hears information suggesting treason.
What follows is a well executed, detailed account of life in a brothel with some larger than life resonating characters, such as the dwarf madam and of some other sinister dark unsettling things goings on. What must be done to survive with a crazed man hunting you down? Further murders take place, mainly of those searching for Elena. Strange things occur that suggest the murderer may be Elena. Is she innocent or not? Soon it will not be safe for Elena to remain at the brothel. Also if found the others in the brothel will risk death also.
This is an in-depth novel, nearly 600 pages long, but with such a well thought through story and impressive taut pace, it is a smooth and engrossing read. Maitland’s depth of research is impressive, conveyed in a manner that supports the story, not just imparted because she uncovered it in her literary review. Her translation of medieval times is incredibly well done and conveyed through powerful, vivid, descriptive text; allowing you to smell the brothel, see the curious furniture and twinkling jewelled ornaments and know with clarity exactly what each character looks like, without overplaying it or resorting to clichéd descriptors. It has lots of twists and turns and is a book that also works as a wonderful escape. Undoubtedly it will also prove to be a very popular read. It would probably also be a good book for those that aren’t so acquainted with historical fiction as it has the makings for broad appeal.