Alan Garner,
The Owl Service
(William Collins & Sons, 1967;
Harcourt, 1999)

Alan Garner's The Owl Service has been a staple of young adult literature for over thirty years, and it has well stood the test of time.

Garner weaves a tale from the Welsh mythological cycle The Mabinogian into the lives of three teenagers brought together in a valley in Wales. Alison is at her family's vacation home with her mother and her new stepfather and stepbrother Clive and Roger. Also present is a housekeeper, Nancy, formerly from the valley, and her teen-aged son Gwyn.

While investigating a scrabbling sound in the eaves over Alison's room, Gwyn discovers a set of plates with a flowery design around the edges. Alison, sick and bored, discovers that the pattern can be traced, cut out and shaped into owls. From the moment she does so, an age old cycle is set into motion.

The tale Garner employs is the story of Blodeuwedd, the woman made out of flowers by a wizard, Gwydion, for Lleu LlawGyffes. But Blodeuwedd loved another, who died by her husband's hand, and she was turned into an owl. Garner makes her somewhat more sympathetic in his retelling, pointing out that she had no choice in the matter. These events continue to play themselves out over and over in this valley, a place of power. Alison, Roger and Gwyn become caught up in the tale themselves, although the roles are not obviously identical, just as those before them have been ensnared, usually with sorry outcomes. It seems that the outcome depends on how one perceives the emblem for Blodeuwedd -- owls or flowers -- and it's not giving away too much to say that seeing owls does not predict a happy ending.

Garner's novel captures the imagination with a compelling original story and a satisfying internal puzzle which is challenging but not impossible to unravel for oneself. The characters' voices ring true, and except for tiny details, such as references to vinyl records, one would never know that one was reading a book published in 1967. Something that wears that well definitely deserves to be called a classic.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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