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4.2 out of 5 stars
The Owl Service
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54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
When I read this in my early teens, I don't think I even vaguely understood it, but somehow it clawed its way under my skin and stayed there. I returned to it, ahem, quite a few years later, to find it a fascinating portrait of taut family dynamics (children adjusting to 'new' family structures), unspoken rivalries and generally the horrible hormonal tensions of adolescent change. It wasn't about owls at all!
It's a stunning, sparsely written and fast-paced read, underscored with a creepy, scary atmosphere that could well put you off family holidays in Wales for ever.
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42 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on 16 December 2003
Two English teenagers, Alison and Roger, have been brought to a quiet Welsh valley by Roger’s father Clive and Alison’s mother (who remains offstage throughout the novel and interestingly, becomes one of those characters of whom we can only draw a picture from the conversations of others) to stay for the summer in a house which once belonged to Alison’s Uncle Bertram.
The house is also home to the mad gardener Huw, the surly and possessive housekeeper Nancy and her ambitious son, Gwyn.
It’s an impressive novel originally intended for a juvenile readership but, as these things tend to do, ended up being just as popular with adults.
The style is fast-paced, sparse, and doesn’t patronise the reader with pages, or even paragraphs of scene-setting. The reader learns all they need to know from the action, the language and the conversations. The name of the valley is never mentioned, nor even the village, yet within a few pages we are able to find our feet and things immediately start getting weird.
Alison, ill in bed seemingly with stomach-ache, is plagued by scratching noises from the attic above. Gwyn, sent to investigate, discovers only a dinner-service with a complex floral design around the edge of each piece.
Alison discovers that when she traces the design and cuts it out, elements of it can be folded to produce the stylised body of an owl.
The paper owls disappear as she creates them, and with them, the design from beneath the glaze of the plates.
It transpires that an ancient power is still bound by the valley and an emotional and physical triangle is repeating itself down through the ages, finding candidates in each generation to re-enact an old drama in order to release the power stored in the valley.
Huw, Nancy and even long-dead Bertram have secrets of their own which are not fully revealed until the final chapter.
The structure is interesting, in that it is based on the interpersonal dynamics of two sets of triangles, the background triangle being that of Clive, Huw and Nancy whose differences seem irreconcilable, set across divides of class, sex and race, and the secrets Nancy refuses to divulge and which Huw is incapable of explaining lucidly.
No doubt this is why Alison’s mother is kept ‘off the page’ as she is involved in neither triangle and would upset the balance.
Some of the language seems a little archaic now, but I can’t help feeling that it gives the book a kind of period charm.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 15 August 2009
Alison and Roger, newly-step-brother and -sister, are in Wales staying in an old house left to Alison by her father. Nancy, an irascible Welsh housekeeper, has also brought her son Gwyn and a strange triangle is formed between the three teenagers. The discovery of a dinner set patterned with owls sets off a series of haunting events in the house which replay a murderous event from Welsh myth and time merges so that past and present are inextricably intertwined with each other.

I first read this as a child and it has stayed with me since then. While it's not as frightening now as I remember, it is wonderfully eerie book while at the same time being quite beautiful. The final image as the book ends (which I'm not going to give away here) has something wonderfully timeless and poignant about it and it has certainly lingered in my mind in a memorable fashion.

The interplay of past and present, and the overlay of myth is handled masterfully. But Garner also makes this a very modern book (it was first published in 1967) as he simultaneously makes it about class tensions and Welsh nationalism, and the problems of re-forming a broken family.

With a delicate and almost tender lyricism this is far more than a children's book: imaginative, moving, funny and scary by turns it deserves the prizes it has won.
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72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
Some books go beyond being mere stories, tales with which to while away the hours, and become far more central within one's life. The Owl Service, which I first read at the age of about ten, is one such book for me. In my youth I was only concerned with the story of Alison, Gwyn and Roger and how the mythical past of a Welsh legend was reaching out to play itself out once again in the present day world, but with each successive reading, and there have been several, new meanings and layers of thought have revealed themselves. Around the age old tale of rivalries in love Garner has managed to weave comments on class (for example Gwyn's attempts to conform and lose his working-class Welsh roots, which he sees as a hinderance, are set against Roger's smug superiority, safe in his comfortable position as heir to the family firm); ambition (how far do we set our own parameters for what we can achieve, simply by settling for what is expected for us rather than holding out for what we really want) and the way the events of the real, everyday world run parallel with a much older world of imagination, myth and legend.

I probably discovered more about the possibilities of well-written fiction from this book than I did from any other. There are beautiful, haunting, descriptions such as Gwyn's nocturnal walk through the wood, spooked by phantom flames which he unconvincingly tries to reason away as marsh gas; there are moments of intense drama such as the attempt to escape from the valley during a torrential downpour and there are beautifully deft character descriptions: Gwyn's mother Nancy's fear and panic as she sees the past inevitably reaching out to the present for example, or the way Alison unknowingly plays the coquette. Above all perhaps it's the way Garner leaves the reader to work out the patterns and connections for themselves that impressed me. What you discover for yourself has a much greater dramatic impact than anything the author bluntly spoonfeeds into your mouth.

It's a clever, fabulous, wonderful book. Beautiful narrative drive, clever observations about themes which affect many children (being in a single-parent family for example and feeling that you don't quite belong, but being unsure whether that makes you special and clever or else something of a misfit) and haunting descriptive, subtle writing. It's glorious.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 19 August 2010
This is taken from the story of the Goddess Blodeuwedd and written in such a way that it brings the story to life. Set in a Welsh valley you are taken on a journey of discovery as the tale unravels. The valley is not named but that does not matter it is the characters that are important. The people of the valley relive the tale of Blodeuwedd.I found it hard to put down and enjoyed the refeshing way the tale was told. A must have book in my veiw especially if you like tales of the Gods and Goddesses.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 26 June 2012
A group of children visit the Welsh countryside and have adventures, but this is not the Famous Five and there are no pork pies or smugglers. "The Owl Service" is a haunting book. I have never met a child who has read it, but I'd be interested to hear what they think of it and whether they'd class it as a 'children's book' at all.
The story is steeped in Welsh mythology, but this far outstrips the mythology of any fantasy text (Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising" sequence comes to mind) because it refuses to be explicit. It doesn't provide the whole world or a whole picture of the mythology that underpins it. The book only hints at different stories and relationships - which'll leave many readers wondering whether they really got it. (I'm still not sure.)
Fantastic book, worthy of and begging for a re-reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 October 2013
I started reading this when I was 13, and I put it down after a few chapters - because I found it very slow-moving, and it wasn't a fantasy story in the vein of "The Weirdstone of Brisingamen."

Reading it again as an adult, I still found it very slow-moving and it took a long time to start firing for me. Once it did, I could appreciate that it really is more of a ghost story than a fantasy story. Three murderously jealous characters from the ancient Welsh Lady of Flowers legend in "The Mabinogion" start haunting three 1960s teenagers who are staying in a Welsh valley for the summer: Alison and Roger, English step-siblings who are a bit superficial and spoilt, and Gwyn, the hard-working Welsh grammar school boy who is the son of their housekeeper. And the supernatural forces, who are never explicitly seen, trap them in the valley without escape until a resolution is achieved.

I'm still not sure a modern 13+ years reader would go for it. But it is beautifully and sparsely written, with a lot of subtle power games. Incidentally, Mr Garner was a grammar school boy from a low-income Cheshire family, and I'm wondering how much of Gwyn's frustration and anger with his circumstances is autobiographical? (Mr Garner's former grammar school now has a library named after him.)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
I am a great admirer of Alan Garner's work, and share his fascination with certain themes - an almost obsessive sense of place, in which locations and geography assume lives of their own; a feeling of the past threatening to overwhelm the present; the 'Stone Tape' theory; English rural folklore. The Owl Service is at once tragic, beautiful, difficult, touching and brutal, and I can't help wondering if, were a children's writer to attempt to publish a book like this today, any publisher would have the guts to take it on. These days, we seem scared to challenge children with books like this - books that are exquisitely written, uncompromising and ambiguous. Thank god for the 60s...
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
"...why didn't you cut the pattern into flowers from the start, you silly girl?" Roger asks his step sister at the end... because we wouldn't have been given this gloriously enjoyable story if she had.

This was a re-reading of the book after having seen the actual Owl Service finder plate at the recent Magical Books expedition at Oxford Bodleian Library. After being disappointed Brett my re-reading of two of Alan Garner's books earlier this year, I was a bit apprehensive about this one. I needn't have worried. Despite being set in the 60s this book is as current and as fresh as ever. Even the references to film photography and home processing don't age it.

It's a story that involves a dysfunctional family and their housekeeper and her son who know more about the secret that lies in the Welsh valley than they ought. It's a classic tale, from an old Welsh myth, worth reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 7 February 2014
"She walked backwards up the road, shouting, and the rain washed the air clean of her words and dissolved her haunted face, broke the line of her into webs that left no stain, and Gwyn watched for a while the unmarked place where she had been..." Like ELIDOR, this Garner book packs a lot into less than 200 pages. And like ELIDOR - it has been nearly 30 years since I last read this story. It has held up beautifully. That said, I think it's a better told story than ELIDOR presents even though both are very different. The propelling movement in "Owl Service" toward the past - a past that has repeated in the valley for centuries is handled in a taffy-pull manner. It's stretched out, bunched up and looped over itself. And it works - it takes a little bit to see where or if Gwyn, Allison or Roger are aspects of this repetition, but the results are teased out nicely. I love the bluntness of the characters of Gwyn and his mother, Nancy, as the household help and the thump of the realities that create the dumbest divides between the help and the householders. Even better when heavy reliance of the householders on the help actually gives the help the controlling position: "Nancy went about in silence and did her work with a perfection that made the house unbearable." Gwyn and his Oliver Twist nature is my favorite character here. I've seen some criticism of the datedness of language: I don't agree - there are expressions or turns of phrase here that may be quaint, unfamiliar - but they belong in their time and place and only require a bit of reader participation to move through or possibly bring to life again. This is not a dead language lesson. The real winner is the buildup of the legend of a woman trapped between two loves - and a reintroduction for me to Blodeuwedd - the flower bride, the hunting owl. I'd first met her very recently in A.A. Attanasio's "Killing with the Edge of the Moon" which I enjoyed, too. This book also calls to mind Margaret J. Anderson's "In the Keep of Time." And now, on to the next book.
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