Adolescence is a crucible, one we share but suffer through alone. Dragged kicking and screaming into the world of the at least biologically adult, we suddenly find our to do list has expanded from which transformer we like best to school, family, sex, education, university choices, sex, exams, sport, puberty, sex, looking cool, sex, being cool, sex, friends, sex and working out exactly who we want to have sex with. Then of course, listening to the right sort of music and crying ourselves to sleep at night when the prospect of sex, or even physical contact, is placed very firmly off the table.
Then you add family into the mix, and suddenly you find yourself standing in the middle of a lake of petrol, soaking wet and holding a lit match. You survive by being destroyed and you trust that you’re going to be able to build yourself back up. Love and faith, family and friends, boy and girl, straight and gay all demanding your attention and none of them listening to you. Adolescence is a season in hell, but it is only a season. Unless you’re unlucky.
The Owl Service, by Alan Garner, is one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written. It’s also one of the shortest, clocking in at less than three hundred pages long and focuses on three very different adolescences, all tied up with each other.
Alison’s adolescence is the most important, and also the hardest. The daughter of a Welsh woman who marries an Englishman, Alison is ill, a little frail and on the verge of adolescence. She’s a fascinating figure and it’s telling that even in a book as relatively old as this, her presence at the centre of the story still feels a little subversive. Alison makes her own fun, leads Gwin to find the owl service and, crucially, makes something of it, literally. She’s the genius of Garner’s book, a girl who is completely invested, completely fascinated and eager to learn more about the world she’s in and yet at the same time is actively working against the other characters, with no memory of doing so. She’s not quite owls, not quite flowers and the end result is sinister with once resorting to histrionics. Alison is halfway between two worlds, something alien and odd and unrelentingly powerful in a world which is largely dominated by staid, established male characters. She’s an element of chaos without once appearing stereotypical or forced and for all the chaos she causes, she remains the calm, bird-eyed heart of the book’s storm.
If Alison’s adolescence is defined by power, Roger’s is defined by the struggle for power. He’s an outsider, just like Alison, but where her isolation comes from gender his comes from nationality and privilege. Roger is Alison’s step brother and as the book unfolds we discover not only that Roger and his father are English where everyone else is Welsh, but that Roger is technically the head of the family. His mother’s infidelity not only removes his father’s moral authority and catalyzes the relationship with Alison’s mother it also severs any hint of trust Roger may have had for anyone in his family. He raises himself, in essence, and as a result is smart, perceptive and distinctly conservative. Just as Alison uses chaos to amuse herself Roger uses stability to maintain himself and the conflict that arises between them falls across gender, nationality and class. He’s English an sensible, he doesn’t believe in the supernatural and the way Garner overlays his completely understandable perceptions and prejudices on ancient Welsh myth is chilling to read. Roger isn’t even his own boy, let alone his own man, for much of the book and the sense of danger, around him especially, is palpable.
Finally, Gwyn’s sin isn’t that he’s the wrong gender or the wrong nationality, it’s that he has just enough education to perform. He’s as clever as the other two and more pragmatic than both of them, a grounded, sensible boy who has exactly enough intelligence to work out he’s got too much intelligence for the valley. Gwyn wants more, and there’s more than a hint of Jude the Obscure to his attempts to make a mark for himself. He’s also far more emotionally honest, realising, unlike Roger, how angry he is and in doing so ending up all the more trapped. It’s Roger who solves the problem and literally saves Alison from dissolution and not Gwyn, who has the first chance to do so. It’s also Gwyn who in turning and embracng his emotions loses the distance needed to understand the situation. He’s swallowed whole by the myth, whereas Roger, the outsider, can at least step out of it. In the end, this emotion is all Gwyn has, holding onto his anger as he struggles to come to terms with the one fact that every teenager learns sooner or later; you don’t matter, and, sooner or later, you will be damaged, be ready for that.
Boys and girl, Welsh and English, Upper class and lower. Each of these children is isolated in their own unique way, each is damaged and each is a near perfect canvas for the myths of the past to write themselves over. The way they dance and circle around each other, fighting and scratching and struggling for accord, is chaotic, evocative and almost completely unique. Each page is thick with atmosphere and meaning, each character is beautifully drawn and the book’s ambition far out reaches it’s small page count whilst still staying within Garner’s grasp. He constructs a delicate, precise story of what happens when adolescence meets expectation that closes as it opens, with a rush of owl feathers and the smell of flowers. If you’ve not read it, do so, there’s very little better.