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VINE VOICEon 1 January 2007
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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on 11 June 2004
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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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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on 9 May 2002
I read this book to my children (8 & 10) and they found it wierd and confusing. The writing is almost deliberately obscure (which I hate in any book) and it's often not clear what's going on - until you read on in the story. Having to frequently re-read parts of the story was not helped by the copy of the book I have having page 180 repeated as page 182 and with page 182 missing altogether! Rather than the Amazon suggested 9-11 age range, I would recommend this book for teenagers, particularly as it deals with adolescents who are confused about their own identity and how they fit into (1960s) society and sketches a story that leaves a great deal to the reader's own imagination. The surreal ending is particularly difficult for younger children to appreciate. Having said all that, I enjoyed the book and would certainly recommed it as a challenging read for older children.
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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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on 20 December 2000
Set in a Welsh valley where the local mythology has a massive influence on the events of the presnet time. This book combines a very modern and rechable style with some great mystical happenings.
In summary: A family arrives on holiday in the valley. The daughter gets ill and hears strange noises from abover her head, after investigation she finds a dinner servcie in the attic wich has elaborate owls painted on it. The owls have a strange effect on what is going on in the family.
It's a story of love that travels the through many generations. Love that has had a knock on event from the past to the present. Simply a very beautiful book that has stood the test of time.
I've read this book 15 years ago and have read it many times since then. It reamins one of my all times favorite books.
Definately a bit weird but highly readable as a child and as an adult.
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TOP 500 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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spooky but so readable.

This is basically a re-working of one of the stories in the Mabinogion.

When Alison disovers some old crockery in the attic she traces the design around the edges of the plates and finds they are owls........this sets off a chain of events that takes her, her step-brother, Gwyn the housekeepers lad and Huw Halfbacon the gardener right to the brink of madness.

Can Alison be saved?

I came across this book whilst watching Countryfile of all things and I am very pleased I did so.

Really good reading which will keep you enthralled right to the last.
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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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on 10 April 2010
This is certainly a book one needs to re-read for the depth of the story to sink in! On my first read through at 8 or 9 I was terrified by this book and didn't really enjoy it (though I absolutely loved the other 3 Alan Garner books in the same set: Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Moon of Gomrath and Elidor). I then went back to the story at 16 and all of a sudden a lot of things became clear. Finally, after my 5th or so time through, I have finally set aside my dislike of the ending and realised that it is actually the perfect finish to the book: it needs to be Roger, who has been tormenting Gwyn all this time, to be the one who repents and restores the balance. I also realised that in the allegory of the ancient Blodeuwedd myth I had been mixing up the 2 characters: Gwyn is meant to be Lleu, and Roger Gronw, and then everything makes a lot more sense.

'The Owl Service' is a gripping and terribly chilling read, one which will stay with you long after you have closed the final page. Everything seems to vividly come to life through the descriptions, and you feel the pain and jealousy of the characters. It is also an interesting social commentary, which has hints of some of the struggles Garner went through early in his life. Overall I would say that this is definitely a book for more mature children and adults, with more to discover every time it is opened.

As a final note, there is a 1969 TV series which is incredibly faithful to the book, especially with the story, atmosphere and casting. If you like the book I would give it a watch.
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