Saturday, 8 May 2010

A Seriously Grown Up Book for Teenagers: Celia Rees


I recently re-read Alan Garner's The Owl Service. I am at the 'gathering' stage for a book and have been reading stories which feature two boys and a girl. I thought that I remembered The Owl Service well but found that I didn't at all. I had forgotten how very, very good it is. This is a grown up book for teenagers, the kind that some of us think we write, but in reality we are getting further and further away from that goal. I'd also forgotten how short it is, only 156 pages. In this time of big, baggy never mind the quality feel the width books, the longer the better, it is practically a novella but so much is unsaid, unexplained, unstated that it seems much longer than this.
The book engages the reader in a particular kind of way, so the action is happening inside his or her head, requiring the reader to use his or her own imagination, to supply the scenery, fill the gaps in the narrative, pull strands together, draw conclusions. Nothing is spelt out. The style of telling is elliptical. In other words, the reader is required to think, to work at the book. Nothing is given away. And every word counts. Every single word has been weighted and carefully selected, there are no fillers and no cliches. Much of the story is carried through dialogue; a surprising amount, far more than I remembered, but again this is spare but dense with a distinct lack of authorial adverbs and sparse indications of who is speaking. Readers can work this out for themselves.
There are no simple answers in The Owl Service. The book is complex, as enigmatic as the myth from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion that underpins it. The story tells how Math and Gwydion, two powerful magicians, make a woman from flowers. They can not cannot control their creation. The forces they unleash result in inevitable tragedy. It is a story of love and rivalry, of forces so powerful that the myth will be played out from generation to generation, down through the centuries. Down to the modern day, where Garner takes up the story.
His book is no simple re-telling. It resonates. It is freighted with the power and depths of meaning that the original myth contains. It drives along. Garner creates almost unbearable tension. It is over before you expect it, leaving you with a sense of regret but also with a sense of completeness, a sense that you have read something that you will not forget.
The Owl Service was published in 1967. As it says, in the 1983 Fontana Lions Edition, 'Alan Garner received both the Guardian Award and the Carnegie Medal for this outstanding novel.' These prizes are given to recognise outstanding literary achievement in children's fiction. For once, the awards went to a book that actually met that criterion. A book of enduring literary quality.

15 comments:

Kathleen Jones said...

I read it as an adult for the first time, buying it for my own children and we all thought it was wonderful. It is very dark, but not in an obvious way - as so many contemporary books are.

Sue Purkiss said...

It's a long time since I read this, and now I want to read it again. Thanks, Celia.

Andrew Strong said...

It's a very beautiful book. It captures the intensity of teenage years, despite its barren setting. But I wonder, would it find a publisher today?

Celia Rees said...

Interesting, Andrew. If it would not what does that say about the book and publishing today?

Joanna Troughton said...

I also read the book years ago but I have never forgotten it - a wonderful thought provoking book. I am now going to read it again too.

bookwitch said...

It's the only Alan Garner I have liked.

Charlie Butler said...

It's the book that made me want to be a children's writer (and, for that matter, a critic of children's writing).

Ellen Renner said...

My favourite Garner book, but haven't read it for years. I need to read it again now. Thank you, Celia.

maryom said...

Happened to re-discover my copy of the Owl Service last week in a clear-up of daughter's room, along with Elidor and the Weirdstone of Brisingamen. She wanted me to throw them away - too old, too scruffy. Fortunately, I'm not that easily swayed.

catdownunder said...

I gave this to one of my nephews about ten years ago and he said, "Seriously weird but way cool." High praise from a teenager.

Mary Hoffman's Newsletter said...

This and Elidor his very best, in my opinion.

Katherine Langrish said...

Yes - Owl Service and Elidor are both utterly brilliant, and I personally still really like his first two - the Weirdstone, and The Moon of Gomrath - though the characters are a little wooden. But I re-read Red Shift recently and couldn't finish it - flashes of genius, but on the whole pretentious and irritating. Anyone else agree?

adele said...

This is a marvellous book, Celia and I must re read it. It is MUCH too difficult to be taken on today. Far too intellectual. I think the only hope of such a book being published today is if it were written by someone who was previously a bestseller for some reason. Sad, really, but who's writing such complex books these days? For children? And I'm sure a great many children did love it. There are those readers out there, but not in sufficient numbers to be commercially significant.

colyngbourne said...

I re-read The Owl Service, Elidor and Red Shift recently. And by far the most profound is Red Shift. So dense and elliptical, it's hard to grasp what's going on, but incredible and moving and disturbing and challenging all at the same time. For me, his best.

Leila said...

Isn't it brilliant? My favourite book. And yet I have friends who were my reading companions when I was a teenager, who loathed it, found it boring.
I don't know if it would find a publisher today, but I do think that children's publishng is moving away from books like this, away from style and complexity and towards high concept and high emotional (rather than literary) stakes.