As the summer draws on, unhindered by the constraints of class assignments or camps, I’ve been visiting the library on my way back from work. I have a habit of grabbing random books from the “new release” shelves, which I think gives me a better idea of where the market is. One such book was A Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.
The British version calls it a “Novel of the Plague,” but I think that’s a little misleading. The historical background is little more than a setting in what is essentially an old formula of strangers traveling together, only to be gruesomely knocked off one by one, and turning against one another in the process.
I’d give it about a B-. I still really like the cover and title. The style was engaging and thought-provoking (such as quip about the English not having blood, but rather rain running in their veins) but the plot didn’t really stand up to closer scrutiny. After a surprising twist, the book opted to end with a vagueness that felt unfinished.
What A Company of Liars did do was remind me how much I like historical fiction. I’ve always been a history geek; there are so many dark stories that inspire the imagination. There are a couple stories in particular that have stuck out to me, but I feel too intimidated to tackle them as premises:
The Etruscans: This advanced civilization predated the Romans in Italy. There’s so much we don’t know about them—but their tomb paintings are hauntingly beautiful and amazingly advanced.
Byzantium: Like the Etruscans, the Byzantines were a paragon of culture. They had the misfortune of getting caught between a rock and a hard place—namely, the crusaders and the Ottomans.
Eleonore von Schwarzenberg: The strange circumstances surrounding this princess served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The woman herself wasn’t half as interesting as the mass hysteria she inspired.
Geli Raubal: There’s a saying that as soon as you bring up Hitler, you’ve effectively brought conversation to a dead stop. However I’d never heard of this particular aspect of his life, namely his half-niece and rumored lover. The dysfunctionality just boggles the mind, but I could envision a terrifically dark and powerful piece told from the perspective of this woman.
Nauru: An island that nobody has ever heard of, Nauru is an incredible testament to the fact that human ingenuity and avarice are two sides of one coin. It was made habitable by men that then proceeded to sell out the land beneath their own feet (literally– it was cut away to be used as fuel).
For an example of great oral storytelling, try this great “This American Life” feature on Nauru: