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.