Company of Liars

This weekend was another long weekend (for Friday was also a bank holiday) and so I took the opportunity to read a book brought back from my last trip to England, Company of Liars, bought mostly because it was on sale at the Kensington Waterstone’s (and also because Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew novels made me like this incredible period of England’s history). The overall plot is not that new: like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it consists in bringing together nine unlikely travel companions and to slowly uncover the secret story of each of those travellers. As indicated by the subtitle, a novel of the plague, an additional element in the plot is that this group is fleeing the propagation of the bubonic plague of 1348 across England. They somehow manage to avoid catching the Black Death but most of them end up dead by other means, always a consequence of their major lie (since all are indeed liars). Even though the story is told by one of the characters, a trader in holy relics, there is no main character in this book and, in this respect, it is quite different from Gregory’s novels.

After finishing the book, I cannot really say if I enjoyed it that much. The style is rather heavy, the link with historical accuracy dubious, and the fantastic element fairly thin. The story is definitely gloomy and the attempts at literary inventions short-fused. As put by an earlier review in The Scotsman, it is easy “to dismiss Company of Liars as pedestrian”… At the same time, the Chauncerian stories that come with each traveller are quite engrossing and the unraveling of the societal structures brought by the plague convincing, including the major move “back” in religious practices. While I would certainly not go as far as The New York Times and call the book “a jewel of a medieval mystery”, it makes for a nice weekend read and nothing more.

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