The Owl Service – Alan Garner

Welcome to the third of my book reviews for Once Upon a Time IX, the internet-wide celebratory blogathon of Fairytale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythological fiction. This time I picked what I’d heard was a classic fantasy in the niche known as Young Adult (is it still okay to call it a “niche” when it’s larger almost every other market?).

We think of YA’s giant success as a genre as being a new thing (or at least I’m always tempted to), but the label was first coined in the 1960s (I now know) and the domination heralded by the likes of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight is more of a second “golden age”. Today’s novel truly is YA, then – so how does it compare?


The Owl Service

by Alan Garner

Teen-aged step-siblings Roger and Allison arrive with their parents in a picturesque valley deep in the Welsh mountains for several weeks of the summer. They are largely left to entertain themselves: Allison’s mother Margaret is always absent, sunning herself alone and never eating with the new family; while Clive, Roger’s father, is content to spend his days fruitlessly fishing in the river, maintaining a cheerful if vague presence in the children’s daily lives.

Several hours drive from the nearest town and isolated even from the nearby village, they are catered for by a cook, Nancy, a former local who has returned to the valley for the first time in over ten years because she needs the money. Nancy’s son, Gwyn, also does odd jobs around the cottage, but the heavy work is done by a true native: the comically named Hugh Halfbacon, a burly handyman and gardener who at times seems simple-minded, muttering dreamy nonsense under his breath as he goes about his duties, much to the amusement of the English newcomers, the interest of Gwyn, and the unjustified anger of Nancy.

The same age as Roger and Allison, Gwyn serves half as a friend and half as their tour guide. Despite being born elsewhere, his mother’s stories about the valley have provided him a detailed picture of the region, and its history — but he is also an intruder on the forging of a new family unit, complicating the relationship between the siblings and provoking animosity from Roger and risky temptation from Allison. All this could be no more than any other holiday hijinks, of course, but the valley holds a secret… or, if not a secret, at least a truth on the edge of being forgotten.

In the legendary past, three tragic figures circled each other here. Lovers pledged to each other, but one betrayed. Rivals fought to the death only to rise and fight to the death again, and the magical woman they battled over became torn, or balanced, between two very different expressions of nature. When the three teens begin to discover hidden emblems of that story these things are fated to play out again, and woe betide any who would seek to evade their role…


Unlike the other books I’ve reviewed for Once Upon a Time so far, there was something about The Owl Service that really didn’t work for me. I’d not read anything by Alan Garner previously but picked this up on its reputation as a classic. Knowing it was an older novel, I had mentally prepared myself for a text that might have dated in its style, anticipating something more dense and wordy than might go over well these days.

I’ve been wrong before, and right as well, sometimes at the same time. Reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence several years ago, I found the first book to be like a disappointing flashback to the Famous Five/Secret Seven tales I used to rattle off in a light afternoon as a child. Imagine my surprise when the second book (which gave the series its name) proved to be much richer, darker and weighty — Will Stanton blows Harry Potter out of the water, imo — but, unfortunately, I found the series flip-flopped back and forth between extremes of flimsy and satisfying more or less with each book. So, as another older example of YA writing, which would this one be?

At first, The Owl Service confused me, repeatedly. Reading an ebook copy, there were numerous times in its first quarter where I assumed I’d advanced the page twice by accident and not noticed — it seemed that chunks of the text were missing. I’d come to a switch in location, or action, or character focus, or all three, taking place between one paragraph and the next. I’d page back trying to reorient myself, only to find that I hadn’t missed anything. Instead of the denseness I’d expected, I was getting something stripped down, too stripped down, jarring in its abrupt shifts.

However, persevering even with thoughts circling in my head about whether or not to put it aside and try something else, I came across moments of simply brilliant writing, more than good enough to ensure I saw it through to the end. The first of these was, I dare say, close to breathtaking. Reading on, those problematic incidents of hyper-brevity continued to occur, but with hindsight I’d say they took place exclusively within the framing action of the family’s life around the cottage, arguably where they would do the least damage and never undermining the mythic core of the story… perhaps with one striking exception.

The story comes to an undeniably dramatic head, and there are beats of real power right up to the close — the sections presented from Gwyn’s POV are, for me, the strongest in the book; the sequence focusing on his mother’s decision to flee the valley is both fantastically oppressive while also being utterly mundane, a real achievement. But that said, when the book reaches its climactic scene, I found it did so once again with that curtailed manner which I’d struggled with at times throughout. Less problematic here, because it was the very end — the ultimate moments are a dreamlike passage, again, of lovely writing — yet I felt it cut too close to the bone, leaving me wanting more in a disappointed rather than enthusiastic way.

One of the assumptions of YA fiction is that it deal with issues or themes relating to young adulthood. The Owl Service does so in the twisting dynamics between the three main characters: a fledgling friendship buckles into petty rivalry, then open antagonism; an awkward, maybe too-soon romance results in raw emotions, deliberate hurtfulness and regret. However, it also embodies something perhaps a bit more rare in terms of a variety of cultural conflicts. The most obvious is in the outsider English crossing into Welsh territory, bringing ingrained notions of superiority and inferiority with them; but we also see Nancy’s native urban prejudice towards the rural Welsh. There is tension between the working class Gwyn and the richer Roger and Allison but also between the two siblings, the “new money” son of a successful businessman and the “old money” daughter of a landowning family.

This depth of content lies somewhat at odds with the narrative minimalism that caused me to stumble so often through the book, and even though I enjoyed some moments a great deal I can’t really call The Owl Service a total success. A subjective opinion, though, and there was more than enough to it that I’m glad to have taken the time to read.

Next stop, another short story from RETOLD – Six Fairytales Reimagined, but after that I’m taking a break from fiction to look at fantasy games. Enjoy the rest of your week!


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