Books in the Blood #5: The Owl Service by Alan Garner

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As an adult, I’ve revisited a chunk of books I first read when I was a child and I’m not sure why.

Maybe as I draw further away from childhood and I can only now experience my younger self through the rear view mirror of memory, I’m desperate to find something I’ve lost.

I don’t think it’s about recapturing my youth – the mirror and the bathroom scales plot together to remind me that that would be an exercise in pointlessness. I have to work hard to keep this wreck of a body functional. From my feet to my back, to my internal workings, it all needs keeping an eye on, whereas once everything seemed to run smoothly with little attention from me. Those corns won’t buff themselves, people.

I really wouldn’t want to be a kid again anyway.

I remember having a conversation with a friend who waxed lyrical about how wonderful his childhood was. According to him it was such a perfect, joyous time, you’d think he grew up in a Famous Five book, filled with exciting adventures catching foreign spies – and lashings of ginger beer for tea. He even used the cliché ‘best years of my life.’

I actually found listening to him a bit irritating. Because, I remember childhood quite differently.

Fear seemed an constant companion, forever holding my clammy hand: fear of the dark and the monsters that splashed about in the loo, ready to take a bite out of the unwary backside. Fear of insanity (yes, at around the age of ten I had a morbid fear of going mad, though worrying about going mad probably took me closer than any actual mental instability).

I worried about school, maths and P.E being regularly terrifying and humiliating ordeals for the humanity-minded plumpster I was. I worried about the bully that spat in my hair whenever she was given the opportunity.

And there was the overriding sensation of being painfully self-conscious, of feeling out of place in my own body, amongst other teens and in the world. I would’ve gladly been bewitched Sleeping Beauty-like by a bad fairy, happy for the most thorny of roses to clamber and tangle around my room, trapping me until I was old enough to not care about how lumpy I looked in drainpipe jeans.

Safe to say, I didn’t recognise childhood as my friend described it. Though, he’s a very confident, easy-going guy, so maybe that carried him over his own bumps and troughs with little damage.

Rereading a once loved book is, though, an exercise in self-assessment.

This week’s Book in the Blood is The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I had a copy bought for me a few years ago after dropping some very heavy and specific hints to my in-laws around the time of my birthday. I read the book eagerly, remembering how much I’d loved it as an adolescent, how I’d adored the mystical elements, the young love, the spine-tingling chills.

The story centres on a trio of young people in a farmhouse in Wales. Unexplained scratching and knocking from the attic draws two of them to discover a china dinner service with an abstract design that could just depict the faces of owls.

There’s a lot to love about this book. Garner is a genius at slow, creeping shudders. He blends violent Welsh myth with modern life, until the characters are compelled to re-enact the past, as if they’re possessed by dead spirits. It’s otherworldly, with a distinctly trippy element – it was first published in 1967 and you feel that sixties ethic through the book.

But what struck me – and here’s where the self-assessment came in – was how much more disturbing I found it as an adult than as a kid. The ending is vague to say the least and how much children’s fiction today doesn’t have a nicely tidied up last act? As the characters lose their grip on their own identities, the tone becomes increasingly unsettling. I remember nothing of this from the first time I read it. I took it all at face value then, accepting its odd qualities as part of the adventure.

Maybe the problem is I’ve had so many more years of conventional story telling rammed into in my head now – beginning, middle, end, story and character arcs – that I find it hard to accept anything different.

I’m glad I read this book as a child – it’s way too grown up for me to appreciate as an adult.