The Owl Service - Alan Garner

I can't remember the last time I read The Owl Service - I definitely read it when I was at school, more years ago than I care to count, and had a vague recollection of it being creepy but that was pretty much it. Anyway, my local library has a load of Alan Garner books as ebooks, so I'm working my way through them...

 

The setting for the book is a house in a Welsh village and the surrounding countryside, which feels quite claustrophobic. It's now owned by Alison, a teenage girl, who has inherited it from her uncle after his death - also present are Alison's mother and step-father, as well as her new step-brother Roger, all of whom have come on an extended holiday to the house. Also arrived there are Nancy, a Welsh woman who grew up in the village, and her son Gwyn who was born and brought up elsewhere. They, along with Huw, are the staff of the house with Nancy as housekeeper and cook. 

 

There's a very clear class divide between the English children and Gwyn, whose ambitions mainly centre on staying in school despite his mother's threats to make him leave school and work in a shop. There's also a cultural divide, with the English as incomers who are left wondering just what is going on both in terms of language and when events start to spiral out of control. These start with an odd scratching sound coming from the attic - a pile of old plates are found there and Alison becomes obsessed with the pattern on them, flowers which can be put together to form the shape of an owl. 

 

Later, there is also a mysterious picture that appears and the relationship between Alison, Roger and Gwyn deteriorates as tensions rise - Alison's mother forbids her from spending time with Gwyn, who mocks her for following the predetermined (and very limited) path her parents have set for her without realising there are other things she could do. Gwyn wants his freedom too and resents his mother, even as revelations occur which change his relationship to both the house and the surrounding valley. They are, it seems, revisiting a series of events that happened in myth and again with Nancy and Huw.

 

In the end, disappointingly, it's the insufferable Roger who provides what answer there is to the situation in which they find themselves. Gwyn, who is a much more likeable and well-drawn character in many ways, is portrayed as unable to get past the anger he (rightly) feels at what he sees as Alison betraying him for a life of tennis club memberships and choir practice. Much like the previous Garner books I've re-read recently, I can't see myself revisiting The Owl Service any time soon.