Originally reviewed 25th August, 2012
I think this might be my favourite of Karen Maitland’s books so far — I definitely liked it more than The Gallows Curse, although it didn’t grip me as tightly as Company of Liars. I have nothing really to nitpick about here, though: the five POVs were well done and cast interesting lights on each other, and I love the research Maitland clearly put into it. The very concept of a beguinage is pretty fascinating, so that helps, but the way Maitland brought this one to life — and tried to explain a real historical event through it — is even more so. I’ve always loved historical novels that take something we know (a wingless Roman Eagle was found buried in Silchester, and Rosemary Sutcliff wrote The Eagle of the Ninth to explain it, for example) and try to puzzle out why. Karen Maitland explores why the beguinages failed to take root in Britain, despite some evidence of them existing here, and despite their longevity and appeal on the continent.
As with her other books, she evokes the Middle Ages well — the smells, the sounds, the sights. Perhaps a little predictably, I suppose: she gives us the vision of the Middle Ages we expect, dirt and plagues and superstition, but still. She does her work well.
I suppose I do have one nitpick, and that’s the POV of Pisspuddle, which doesn’t add much. It does add a villagers-eye view, so there’s that, but mostly she’s just a small child who doesn’t matter that much to the events happening around her.
The characters are all intriguing: I really felt for Osmanna, and for Servant Martha, particularly. I felt very sorry for Beatrice, even though I knew she was seeing things from a very biased point of view. And Healer Martha deserved better.
Oh yes, and trigger warning: rape, abusive parents, sickness. More or less what you might expect, but just in case.