Review: A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

Catherynne M. Valente has been in the business of reworking and complicating pervasive cultural myths for some time – whether that’s uncovering cycles of abuse at the heart of classic fairytales as she does in Six-Gun Snow White, or criticising the treatment of women in superhero narratives in The Refrigerator Monologues. Her poetry collection A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects is a very early effort, published in 2008, after her breakthrough Orphan’s Tales duology but before most of her better-known novels. As its title suggests, it’s a book that deconstructs, and then reconstructs, well-known fairytales, myths and legends in surprising and revealing ways, often restoring agency to traditionally passive female characters, or inserting new female viewpoints where none previously existed.

Take, for example, the poem “The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Mid-West”, which begins, “Hades is a place I know in Ohio…” It’s an unsettling update of the Hades and Persephone myth, in which the Persephone figure is a woman from modern-day America; the contrast it draws between bright, mundane modernity and the Greek classicism of Hades (“Ascaphalus talks shop with me/at the Farmer’s Market”) brings her displacement from the land of the living to the world of the dead into sharp focus. The dead’s refrain of “Don’t you know these are your fruits?/Don’t you know these are your flowers?” is a sinister and ever-present reminder of her inevitable fate – and, by extension, of our own mortality.

Scattered throughout the collection are little prose pieces, presented as descriptions of stories by a folklore researcher. What unites these tales is that they are all told by women or feature women prominently, and there are often esoteric traditions around their transmission: one is told only by youngest daughters, for example, and another is told by women to their prospective husbands, their reactions to the story indicating their suitability as partners. The effect is a sense of secrecy and power: these women have control of the narrative in a way that feels somewhat radical in our own patriarchal context.

Of course, the work that Valente is doing here is not particularly unusual: she’s following in the footsteps of authors like Angela Carter and, on the theoretical side, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Valente’s command of voice and language, which is so noticeable in novels like Palimpsest and Radiance, has not yet developed fully here, and somehow the flowing poetry of her prose is actually less remarkable – less memorable – in actual poetic form. A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects has some worthwhile things to say, but it’s ultimately, I think, a minor work.

Review: Mossflower

This review contains spoilers.

MossflowerThe Goodreads page for Brian Jacques’ Mossflower, the second novel in his Redwall series (in publication order, that is; chronologically it’s third) for middle grade readers, is full of delighted reviews from adults who’ve revisited a childhood favourite and discovered that it measures up. Of course there are not many 12-year-olds writing Goodreads reviews of any book (in fact it’s against their terms of service); but compare it to something like The Wind Singer, a similarly iconic children’s novel published around the same time, and it’s obvious that the nostalgia is particularly strong with this one.

So what’s going on? I think it’s partly to do with the way Jacques constructs an idyllic English landscape that’s completely free of humans, and thus of the ennui and moral complexity that characterises modernity. The titular Mossflower is a region of woodland inhabited by hardworking mice, hedgehogs, moles and squirrels who are being tyrannised by the wildcat Lord Verdauga and his paranoid daughter Tsarmina. Our story begins when a wandering mouse named Martin is captured by Tsarmina’s troops and imprisoned in the wildcats’ castle, Kotir; there, in the dungeons, Martin meets Gonff, a merry thief who convinces him to join the woodlanders’ resistance. Together with a mole named Dinny, Martin and Gonff head out on a quest to the seashore, many days’ journey away, to find a legendary badger warrior who can help the people of Mossflower defeat Tsarmina.

One of the most notorious things about the series is the way it assigns morality based on species, despite ostensibly extolling the virtues of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. With a couple of exceptions, all rats, foxes, stoats, weasels, ferrets and wildcats are villains, while (with no exceptions) all mice, moles, squirrels, otters, badgers, shrews and hares are good, law-abiding folk. It makes a kind of emotional sense: we do think of rats, foxes and weasels as vermin, while otters, mice and moles are popularly conceived of as fluffy and benevolent. It’s also a comfortingly straightforward way of seeing the world: being able to tell good from bad just by looking makes a lot of things a lot easier. No need to decide which actions are wrong and which ones right; no need to differentiate morally between intent and impact; no need to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who ends up not deserving it. It is, of course, a falsely simplified model, and one that lies behind significant real-world harms (most notably racism, but also the unattainable beauty standards that disproportionately affect women around the world); but that simplicity is also seductive.

Another frequently-remarked-on feature of the Redwall books is their lavish descriptions of food: the woodlanders of Mossflower love a good banquet. A celebratory meal late in the novel features deeper ‘n ever pie, leek and onion broth, fruit pie, nut pudding, quince and apple crumble, plum pudding, October ale, cider and buttermilk – delicious-sounding, hearty and quintessentially British foods all, epitomising abundance and plenty. Again, it’s the stuff of blissful nostalgia, and again that nostalgia obscures something quite reactionary: all of this food has been prepared by housewife hedgehog Goody Stickle. (It’s worth noting here that while there are several prominent female characters, none of them go on the quest with Martin, and most of them are relegated to caring and domestic roles.)

What else? Well, there’s the consolatory plot structure, which sees Martin returning from his quest changed, with the skills and resources to oust Tsarmina and restore order and peace to Mossflower. There’s the squeaky clean romance between Gonff and a young mousemaid, which involves absolutely no drama or angst or awkward relationship conversations. There’s the slight Church of England vibe we get from the woodlanders, who early on welcome refugees from a place called Loamhedge Abbey, and who will go on to found the Mossflower-based Redwall Abbey (as we know from the novel’s frame narrative): their largely unexamined emphasis on inoffensive values like peace and mutual aid is reminiscent of the sort of gentle religiosity one experiences in Church of England schools.

What all of this adds up to, I think, is an overall textual affect that recalls popular constructions of childhood in the West. The moral and romantic simplicity, the importance and abundance of food, the ousting of evil by the forces of good, the unmarked Christianity: these are all hallmarks either of actual childhood or of what we as adults think it was like to be a child. Any adult re-reading a childhood favourite is in some sense attempting to revisit their childhood; but Mossflower, and the other Redwall books, make it much easier than most classic children’s texts to access the idealised, nostalgic version of childhood that we’re attempting to recapture when we do this. Its obvious ideological problems demonstrate the danger inherent in this sort of reading, and in our conceptions of children and childhood.

Review: Lirael

TW: suicidal ideation.

This review contains spoilers.

Like its predecessor Sabriel, Garth Nix’s Lirael is a classic fantasy tale of growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Its eponymous protagonist is, when the novel opens, fourteen, and profoundly miserable because she has not yet gained the gift of the Sight, the ability to see into the future that is the birthright of the mostly-female extended family and community that is the Clayr. She’s discovered contemplating suicide by a couple of senior Clayr, and to take her mind off things is offered a job in the Clayr’s Great Library, an appropriately magical and dangerous locale. Over the next few years, she inadvertently summons, and then befriends, a powerful magical being known as the Disreputable Dog, releases a monster into the Library and learns to bind it, and finally rediscovers a forgotten magical skill that holds the key to her heritage and her destiny. To complete this process of self-discovery, though, she must leave the home she’s known all her life and venture out into the Old Kingdom, in search of a young man from the mundane land of Ancelstierre, where magic doesn’t exist, who is unwittingly digging up something better left buried.

Something that struck me on this, my umpteenth re-read of Lirael, is how much Lirael’s journey to self-actualisation is tied to her heredity. The key discovery she makes in the novel is that she is the daughter of an Abhorsen, the Old Kingdom official who lays the powerful Dead that plague the kingdom to rest, working to foil the plots of necromancers. The post of Abhorsen is a hereditary one, and by a couple of other signs Lirael figures out that she (and not the hapless Prince Sameth, who we’ve seen repeatedly avoiding his studies of the necromancer’s text The Book of the Dead) is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting; and that, therefore, she will probably never have the Sight.

Lirael’s whole backstory is analogous to that of the bookish social outcast, the lonely high-school teen; one of the things the novel is addressing is the sense of inferiority young geeks often feel. You might not fit into the crowd now, Nix is saying, but there are other things you can do, other ways in which you are special. But it’s striking that the purpose Lirael ultimately finds for herself originates not in any particular skill or anything she’s worked to achieve, but in her parentage – in something she has no control over. It is basically an accident that this lonely young woman ultimately becomes one of the most important people in the Old Kingdom. The text works hard to conceal this, showing us her magical skill, her courage, her self-reliance as evidence of her worthiness. But that’s what it boils down to.

This somewhat undermines Nix’s core message about the possibility of finding belonging and purpose as a (former) geek social outcast. You can find self-actualisation even if you’re not popular – but only if you happen to be related to someone important. But it also implies an exceptionalism that plays into some pernicious real-world geek social fallacies: Lirael’s birth, and subsequent Chosen One status, makes her not just different to, but better than, the Sighted Clayr. What geeky teenager, after all, would rather be a Sighted Clayr than Lirael, who gets to explore a huge and mysterious magical library, and ends up becoming part of the royal family? Again, I think this is a tendency that the novel is trying to resist: none of the Sighted Clayr characters are shallow or cruel or gossipy the way they might be in a contemporary teen drama (apart from possibly the brusque and impatient Aunt Kirrith), and Lirael’s discovery of her parentage isn’t a magical panacea for her grief for the life she always thought she’d have. But it’s still there.

This emphasis on hereditary power is of course endemic to the fantasy genre; I suspect that Lirael‘s problems come from its participation in that genre rather than any particular authorial ideology (although opting not to scrutinise the power structures you’re working with as an author is an ideological choice in itself). And it’s handled better here than it is in other high fantasy texts; we can at least believe in Lirael’s personal ability to take on the role her birth has assigned her. Less excusable is the novel’s prose, which, in a marked departure from the accessible and relatively modern voice of Sabriel, has a portentous, overwritten quality which I imagine Nix feels is appropriate for his fantasy setting. (There probably is an argument for the difference in tone between the two novels: Sabriel was raised in Ancelstierre, which is early-to-mid-1900s in vibe, whereas Lireal belongs to the considerably more medieval Old Kingdom. But that’s not an excuse for the writing to get worse.)

Ultimately Lirael is still a novel that’s special to me; one I still enjoy, and one I’d still be moderately happy to press into the hands of another young person in the knowledge that it treats its female protagonist with respect and sensitivity. But it’s interesting – and, I’d argue, pretty important – to consider what kind of ideological considerations underlie beloved texts, and especially beloved children’s texts; if only so we can learn a bit about why we are who we are.

Review: Interesting Times

TW: transphobia.

Interesting TimesIt’s rarely a good sign when the name of a beloved author begins trending on Twitter, and so it proved over the weekend, when transphobes attempted to suggest that the works of prolific comic fantasy author Sir Terry Pratchett support their so-called “gender critical” ideology. This is…a reach, to put it mildly: Pratchett’s Discworld series features several minor characters, chief among them the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom, who can be read as transgender or genderfluid, and his works generally show a tendency towards opposing all forms of hate and any ideology that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of other people. At the same time, though, those who are defending Pratchett as a sort of ultraprogressive literary hero are, I feel, massively overstating the case: he’s nowhere near as interested in gender as either the transphobes or his liberal supporters would like him to be, and he’s more than capable of being problematic in other areas too. Interesting Times, a middle-period Discworld novel, is a salient example.

The book sees cowardly wizard (or, in his own words, “Wizzard”) Rincewind summoned to the inscrutable, powerful Agatean Empire – a caricatured analogue of China/Japan – for unknown reasons. There, he finds a people’s revolution fomenting against the cruel and oppressive imperial regime, and meets the elderly barbarian Cohen, who, together with his equally elderly Silver Horde, is planning the heist of a lifetime.

Where to start with this? Well, there’s the title, which refers to the well-known “Chinese curse”, “May you live in interesting times!” – which has never been traced back to an actual Chinese-language saying. Nevertheless, Pratchett builds on the ironic understatement of the phrase to imagine a vaguely Oriental society that’s chronically polite and rigidly hierarchical: hampered by etiquette, the revolutionary Red Army uses slogans like “Untimely Demise to the Forces of Oppression!” and “Much Ownership of Means of Production!” Their revolutionary text is What I Did on My Holidays, an account of Agatean citizen Twoflower’s visit to Pratchett’s anarchic Victorian London analogue Ankh-Morpork. (Readers first met Twoflower in The Colour of Magic, the very first Discworld novel, in which he is a caricature of a tourist.)

With all of this Pratchett is making an argument about internalised tyranny:

The Empire’s got something worse than whips all right. It’s got obedience. Whips in the soul. They [the Agatean peasants] obey anyone who tells them what to do. Freedom just means being told what to do by someone different.

While this is an interesting social dynamic to explore, and one that’s of a piece with Pratchett’s other writing on tyranny and power, it’s not one that particularly rings true in the context of historical Asia, and it’s worth considering why Pratchett felt the need to displace this particular breed of oppression into a non-Western context, when there are plenty of historical European societies that would work just as well. (The fictional Discworld country of Uberwald, which is ruled by ancient dynasties of werewolves and vampires, would have been a good place to set such a story.) Notably, Ankh-Morpork, a city ruled over by a literal tyrant, is portrayed here as a bastion of freedom and entrepreneurship, its dangers and oppressions as somehow more honest than the Empire’s. This is literally Orientalism in action, a Western-coded city-state being defined in opposition to the Eastern-coded Other, and coming out the better for the comparison.

Theoretical considerations aside, some – lots – of the jokes are just plain racist. There’s Rincewind addressing a Red Army member in a sort of broken English pidgin (which doesn’t even make sense, given that Rincewind is supposedly speaking Agatean at this point) – “Here’s bigfella keys belong door…” There are Chinese restaurant jokes. There are stereotypical, faux-exotic names that, as far as I can tell, bear no resemblance to actual Chinese nomenclature: Pretty Butterfly, One Big River. (Weirdly this actually feels more Native-coded than Chinese-coded, which just goes to show how lazy Pratchett is being in constructing Agatean culture.)

From a series perspective there is some interesting stuff going on here. Cohen and Rincewind – the ultimate hero and the arch-coward – are always good foils for each other; the fact that both end up triumphing against overwhelming odds despite their opposing worldviews is a nice touch. I like the overt metanarrative about luck and fate; that’s quite fun, despite the fact that it connects poorly to the novel’s grander themes of power and tyranny. And ultimately it’s not a nasty novel. It’s a story about putting people ahead of ideology, a story that cares about individuals in all their variety and idiosyncrasy. All the same, it’s a novel that’s aged extremely badly, and not one that Pratchett fandom should be proud of.

Review: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Shark's Fin and Sichuan PepperOriginally a Cambridge English graduate raised in Oxford, food writer Fuschia Dunlop became interested in China during a stint working for the BBC Monitoring Unit in Caversham. Chasing this interest, she applied for, and won, a British Council scholarship to study at Sichuan University; but quickly lost interest in her official research into Chinese ethnic minorities, and instead enrolled on a course at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, the first Westerner, and the first woman, to do so. She’s now recognised as one of the foremost Western experts on Chinese cooking; Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper is the tale of how she got there.

There’s of course something a little awkward about reading a middle-class white woman speak with authority about a culture she hasn’t been raised in, although Dunlop has at least spent a significant amount of time – months, years – actually living in China. In Dunlop’s case, I’d already read her cookbooks The Food of Sichuan and Land of Fish and Rice, which the Bandersnatch has been cooking from, and which, for me, illuminated a number of things that can make Chinese cooking seem unpalatable by Western standards. In particular, texture is key in Chinese cuisine: it’s why you see things like jellyfish and chicken gizzards on the menu at good Chinese restaurants in the West. It’s this kind of context – supplemented by historical material about the origins of particular dishes and particular branches of Chinese cooking – that makes the writing in Dunlop’s cookbooks feel deeply informed, going beyond the exoticism and Orientalism that’s endemic in Western writing about Asian cuisine to become something that’s both accessible to Western readers and at least approaching “authentic”. I mean, it’s still uncomfortable that Dunlop is a leading expert on this subject, and not an actual Chinese person – even if this isn’t precisely Dunlop’s fault. But it does, at least, seem to be actual expertise.

I’d say Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper veers a little more into exoticising territory, though, perhaps simply because of its nature as a personal memoir rather than reference-book writing. Dunlop has a tendency to make rather generalising statements about whole cities and regions:

No one would decide to go and live in Chongqing after such a baptism of fire [Dunlop is referring here to the chilli-heat of Chongqing cuisine]. But Chengdu is a gentle city. Life there is not a battle against the elements and the gradient of hills; it is a sweet, idle dream.

There’s a fair bit of this sort of thing, details that make it clear that Dunlop’s seeing China from the outside, and not as a full-time inhabitant would. As in her cookbooks, however, there’s also real, thought-provoking engagement with the history and context of Chinese cuisine and food culture. Dunlop traces the progression of her deepening love for Chinese food – and especially Sichuan food – and then, in later chapters, reveals her disillusionment with the country: with its rife corruption, the endemic pollution, the thriving trade in meat from endangered species. She visits Xinjiang and describes the discrimination that Uyghur Muslims were facing there even back in 2008, in a foreshadowing of the internment camps that exist across the region today. She describes how the increasing wealth of China’s middle class is pushing up demand for rare delicacies, decimating ecosystems around the world. Dunlop’s research background shines here: it’s all fascinating analysis about one of the world’s largest economic powers, although again her framing of China’s flaws as personal disappointments for her, a Westerner, gives the whole thing a slightly uncomfortable cast.

Even when she isn’t being critical, there are things Dunlop writes about that I would rather not have read, on the whole. The subject of eating puppies comes up several times. More seriously, Dunlop describes methods of animal butchery that are literally inhumane: she describes somebody skinning a rabbit without killing it first, for example, and goes on to praise the “honesty” of such a process, compared to the sanitised industrial meat production that goes on in the West. This, to me, is symptomatic of Dunlop’s romanticising of Chinese food culture: both processes, Chinese and Western, seem equally inhumane in different ways, and neither is particularly excusable.

There are problems with Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, then; its very nature, as an account of a Westerner’s relationship with China, means it’s never going to be entirely satisfactory as an authority on that country. But, on the whole, I did quite enjoy it. I like that it does engage with criticisms of China; that it illuminates aspects of Chinese food culture for Westerners; that it draws attention to regional differences in Chinese cuisine which are often blurred in the Western cultural consciousness. Fascinating and imperfect, it’s well worth a read if you’re at all interested in Chinese food.

Review: The Once and Future Witches

The Once and Future WitchesIn 1921, an anthropologist named Margaret Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she hypothesised that the women who were tried and sentenced as witches between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries were all followers of a suppressed pagan cult built around the Satanic figure of a Horned God. Although Murray’s work on this so-called witch cult has been thoroughly discredited, it had a massive influence on the development of Wicca, whose practitioners often claimed to be the inheritors of those long-dead witches’ secret knowledge. “We are the granddaughters of the witches you couldn’t burn” is still a sentiment you see floating around witchy Tumblr – although I think most Wiccans are a little less literal about it nowadays.

Alix E. Harrow channels a very similar sentiment in her latest novel The Once and Future Witches. Her three protagonists are the Eastwood sisters, James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth and Beatrice Belladonna, in an alternative 1893 in which witchcraft, once a real and vital force, has been all but destroyed by the Church and the patriarchy, surviving only as petty household cantrips and nursery rhymes passed down mother to daughter. James, Agnes and Beatrice, survivors of an abusive childhood that has driven a series of wedges between them, are nevertheless reunited when a magical tower appears in the sky above the town of New Salem, promising the return of real power for women in a world where universal suffrage is still a distant dream. The sisters unite to restore witchcraft to the world, but face resistance from the men of New Salem – in particular a slimy, fundamentalist Christian politician named Gideon Hill – as well as the middle- and upper-class suffragettes who see witchcraft as backward and vulgar.

Witchcraft is an immensely potent metaphor for women’s work, female power and the ways that both have been historically devalued and suppressed; that’s undoubtedly why Murray’s theories have lasted in the popular consciousness to this day. It’s not a new metaphor even in fiction: you can see it at work in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which feature witches who are both feared and respected for their prowess at traditionally female, domestic activities like attending to the sick and caring for animals.

What Harrow adds, conceptually – what makes The Once and Future Witches really sing – is intersectionality. The Eastwood sisters are poor working-class women: Agnes works in a factory; Beatrice is a librarian’s assistant; James is unemployed thanks to her youth. Their allies include a Black gay woman (and the Black women’s association she’s a part of), a trans woman, Eastern European women and even a couple of men who learn magic for the Eastwoods’ sake. It’s a specifically pluralistic definition of what women’s power looks like and who it benefits (everyone), and Harrow has some good points to make about how different communities are differently affected by misogyny, and how different forms of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, transphobia) interact.

What this intersectional approach to the witchcraft metaphor does, against the alt-historical backdrop of the fight for women’s suffrage, is provide a sort of alternative origin story for feminism – a story in which feminism is inclusive and welcoming right off the bat, in which it brings everyone along at once, without losing any of its anger or incisive power. The Once and Future Witches contains much that is bleak: there is torture, abuse, incarceration, death. But its message, ultimately, is a hopeful, joyful one. It’s a lovely book, one of the best of 2020, and I hope there’s plenty more coming from Harrow.

Review: Inkheart

This review contains spoilers.

InkheartCornelia Funke’s Inkheart is, if my childhood experience with it is anything to go by, a very successful novel that achieves exactly what it sets out to. It’s a novel for older children – not quite YA – about the importance and danger of reading, and it’s directly responsible for some of my most basic beliefs about, and approaches to, books and their materiality.

Protagonist Meggie, the daughter of a bookbinder named Mo, has been brought up to love and respect the objects that her father restores so painstakingly. Books are her constant companions and her friends: she sleeps with them under her pillow, and never goes anywhere without one if she can help it. One evening, her father receives a mysterious visit from a man called Dustfinger, who warns him about an equally mysterious figure named Capricorn – a terrifying personage by all accounts. The next morning, Mo and Meggie flee, without explanation, to the house of Meggie’s aunt Elinor, where Meggie eventually learns that Mo has the power to make fictional things and beings manifest in the real world simply by reading aloud. Years ago, he accidentally read Capricorn, and the hapless Dustfinger, out of a fantasy novel called Inkheart – and read Meggie’s absent mother, who Meggie has never met, back into it. Now, Capricorn wants to destroy all extant copies of Inkheart, so that he can never be returned to the world depicted within its pages; but that will leave Meggie’s mother stuck there too.

So this is a novel interested, I think, in authority – a word I use advisedly, given its relationship to the word “author”. The authority of the written word is paramount in Inkheart: Mo’s power only works when he’s reading aloud; simple oral storytelling has no effect. The good characters here treat books with respect and reverence; the villains burn them. (Capricorn’s evil finds its zenith in his destruction of Elinor’s vast library.) The notion of authority comes into sharp relief later in the novel when Inkheart‘s author Fenoglio comes onto the scene: the climax depends on him writing new words for his book, altering it so that Capricorn dies – so that when those new words are read aloud, Capricorn is destroyed in this world too. It’s interesting that only Fenoglio can do this – that only the author can change the story – and that Fenoglio is also considered to have special knowledge of his characters’ motivations, knowledge beyond what’s written on the page. This is an Enlightenment view of authorship, underpinned by the Protestant idea that the Bible, the Word of God, is the single and highest authority on what Christians should believe and how they should live. It’s a view that has no truck with the death of the author: Fenoglio is basically God to his creations, with absolute power over their lives and deaths.

For much of the novel, then, authority lies chiefly with two men, Mo and Fenoglio. But, gradually, and unbeknownst to her father, Meggie begins experimenting with her own reading voice, and discovers that she too can make written things real. Ultimately, it’s Meggie who reads Capricorn into oblivion in Mo’s absence (although her father turns up just in time to finish the passage when she falters). This is partly about Meggie growing up, realising her full potential; taking her place in the Symbolic order, if we want to get Lacanian about it (and, let’s face it, I always want to get Lacanian about it). But there’s also a feminist point here too, I think, in the fact that we’re seeing a girl ascend to traditionally male authority; an especially important point in view of the fact that her mother, who we discover among Capricorn’s retinue at the end of the book, has symbolically lost her voice.

Something that I found striking and unusual about Inkheart as a novel for children is that Mo is a constant presence throughout the story. Most MG and YA novels sideline parental figures as a way of giving their young protagonists greater agency: think of parentless Lyra in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, or the way that September is blown off to Fairyland in Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making. But Funke manages to keep Mo by Meggie’s side, attempting to protect her, while at the same time giving Meggie the space to become her own authority (although it’s notable that it’s when Meggie and Mo are parted temporarily that she’s able to defeat Capricorn). Their relationship is strong, trusting and respectful; I’d argue that in some respects it’s actually a better model for exploring childhood agency in a realistic way than the absent-parent one, as real Western children for the most part gain agency as Meggie does, gradually and in small doses. It also situates Meggie better in her social context: it’s clear that she’s coming of age into a specific community, a family, rather than into a sort of individualistic vacuum.

This is where Meggie’s budding sort-of-a-romance with Farid, a boy who’s been read out of One Thousand and One Nights along with a bunch of gold, comes into play. I mean, I say romance, I think they share a couple of charged glances and blush a bit; it’s very much an undercurrent rather than a major plot point, but then they’re both about twelve. It’s the suggestion that’s important, placing Meggie at the gates of adulthood, starting to take her place in the grown-up social order. And although I wouldn’t say Funke’s portrayal of Farid is entirely unproblematic – she doesn’t really bother to complicate the stereotypes that popular understandings of One Thousand and One Nights have given us – it still feels fairly unusual to read about a possible interracial romance in a mainstream children’s novel from 2005.

At the beginning of this review, I talked about how influential Inkheart has been on how I interact with and think about books. Until a couple of years ago, I slept with a book under my pillow at night (and still do when I’m on my own). I have a book with me pretty much wherever I go. I’m always currently reading something. I don’t dog-ear pages, or throw books away; book art, however intricate and lovely, makes me feel conflicted and sad. Because books are important. Books are sacred.

This is all because of Inkheart. Inkheart taught me about the importance of authority, the importance of the Word; a concept that’s central to a lot of Western thought, particularly pre-modernism. If one of the functions of children’s literature is to help induct young readers into the majority culture, then Inkheart certainly does the job.

Notes on Paul Auster’s Travels in the Scriptorium

Travels in the ScriptoriumThis isn’t really a proper review of Travels in the Scriptorium, because, as per my review of Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, I’m no longer interested in engaging substantially with litfic that treats women as second-class citizens. (Of course litfic authors are capable of doing this to marginalised groups of all kinds – I’ve just finished reading Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House, which is a bit yikes on several levels – but I’ve noticed that this kind of misogyny is endemic across the genre.)

The protagonist of Travels in the Scriptorium, referred to as Mr Blank for reasons that will shortly become clear, wakes in a characterless room with no memory of who or where he is. In a desk drawer, he discovers an unfinished manuscript telling a story set in nineteenth-century America – did he write this? We’re not sure, and neither is he. He also receives a succession of visitors who he doesn’t recognise and who will return only cryptic answers to his questions – oh, and have sex with him. Therein lies the problem.

There are two (2) female characters in this book. The first one, Anna, helps him go to the bathroom, cleans him, and then gives him a handjob, which is somewhat disturbing given the fact that he is not at this point sure whether she is his daughter. The second, Sophie, apparently a nurse of some description, gets him to take his pills by allowing him to fondle her breast – at which point I almost flung the book across the room.

These sexual encounters don’t, as far as I can see, contribute anything to the text’s meanings: since Anna and Sophie appear once each, they’re not setting up any kind of relationship; there’s no thematic exploration of sex or of misogyny; there’s literally no meaning to these unequal sexual encounters apart from a distinctively creepy fantasy-wish-fulfilment vibe. It’s just…an elderly man receiving sexual gratification from basically faceless women without needing to do any emotional work in return.

When I started researching this post I found out that many of the characters here are drawn from Auster’s other novels; and there’s some textual evidence to suggest that Mr Blank is Auster himself. Which, uh, explains a lot.

Obviously this is all supposed to lead in twisty metatextual directions that explore the nature of authorship, etc., and the sex stuff probably has a deeper meaning that is not misogynist because this is Literature, but I am just not that interested in giving Auster the benefit of the doubt. The way he handles Anna and Sophie here is creepy and gross. That’s it; I’m out.

Review: Shadowplay

ShadowplayIt’s 1878. A little-regarded Irish writer named Bram Stoker is offered a job by one of the theatrical giants of his age, Henry Irving, the first actor to be awarded a knighthood: Bram is to manage the Lyceum Theatre, a daunting task for which he’s ill-prepared. Joining Irving’s cast at the Lyceum is the other great theatrical light of the late Victorian period, Ellen Terry. Joseph O’Connor’s 2019 novel Shadowplay charts the relationship between these three historical figures, and the formative influence the Lyceum years had on Stoker’s masterpiece Dracula – which, tragically, never saw success in Stoker’s lifetime. It’s a relationship that’s frequently contentious, resentful, fraught with jealousy – but one that endured, historically and in the world of the novel, for two and a half decades.

The novel is very much in conversation with Dracula, and in many ways is engaged in the work of constructing an origin story for it. O’Connor fortunately avoids the trap of thinking too biographically about works of art – Henry Irving isn’t Dracula, he’s just the inspiration for the character; events and characters in Shadowplay also show up in Dracula, but in different contexts and symbolic schema – but, ultimately, Shadowplay is still very interested in where Stoker’s culture-shaping novel came from. And part of the way it’s talking to Dracula is through the tropes and effects of the Gothic. Structurally, it mirrors Dracula‘s epistolary form – and that of many Gothic novels – told as it is through a series of discontiguous texts: transcripts of phonograph recordings, diaries, letters, all stitched together with good old-fashioned third-person narration. Other Gothic conceits include a ghost that haunts the attic of the Lyceum, where Bram likes to write; a febrile, menacing atmosphere occasioned by the spectre of Jack the Ripper, whose brutal attacks prompt Bram and Irving to make special provisions for the safety of the Lyceum’s women; a visit to an asylum, later on in the novel; and overtones of forbidden eroticism – O’Connor having chosen here to interpret Stoker as gay, not without some evidence.

In this way the novel generates the sort of heightened, vaguely menacing atmosphere in which we can believe something like Dracula must have been written. But what truly makes the novel Gothic is the bitter irony that pervades it: the fact that toiling, ambitious Bram Stoker was unknown in his lifetime, but is globally famous today; and that Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, the Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt of their day, are virtually unremembered today save by academics and amateur historians. Put simply, the text is haunted by the afterlives of its characters; and, in true Gothic fashion, the haunting, and the anxieties it provokes about mortality and celebrity, remain unresolved by the text, owing to the basic facts of history: Bram will never know of his fame, and nor will his friends. That knowledge haunts us long after we close the book, past and present layered on top of each other in a way that destabilises both.

It’s this haunting effect that ultimately makes the novel its own thing, a text that can stand independently of Dracula. I think what I like most about the book is that it’s a kind of witnessing of a seemingly small and unregarded life that actually turned out to be massively important to the development of Western culture. Our knowledge of Stoker’s influence on English literature – that haunting irony that stays with us as we read – is tragic, but it’s also, in a way, uplifting; it grants a kind of dignity to his life. Shadowplay is a lovely, layered novel that’s deploying Gothic tropes in knowing, effective ways; a fascinating portrait of a literary figure who missed out on his own success.

Review: The House of Ulloa

The House of Ulloa“Gothic” is a descriptor that’s thrown about a lot in relation to Emilia Pardo Bazan’s The House of Ulloa, but I’m not sure I agree that the novel’s truly Gothic in sensibility. First published in Spain in 1886, the novel follows the young priest Julian Alvarez on the first posting of his career, as chaplain to the debauched marquis of Ulloa, Don Pedro. The narrative focuses on Julian’s attempts to reform Don Pedro’s character and rescue his estate from the disarray Julian’s predecessor left it in – as well as from the control of Don Pedro’s majordomo Primitivo, who seems to have his fingers in a number of pies.

There are unmistakably Gothic elements to the tale: the crumbling family mansion, the debauched and degenerate noble house which recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s House of Usher, the wild, Brontean landscapes; later on, Don Pedro marries a sweet, naive young woman who pines away in the confinement of his house. But Bazan is primarily a realist; there is never any true suggestion of the supernatural or of the Gothic unknowable in her novel. In fact the horrors here are almost too knowable: one of the first things we see of the House of Ulloa is a group of grown men force-feeding wine to a toddler. In a Gothic novel such as, for instance, Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, or Wuthering Heights, whose landscapes Bazan’s so resemble, this kind of cruelty would remain subtextual, a narrative void generating the atmosphere of mystery, anxiety and suspense that characterises the Gothic as a genre. Here, in Bazan’s novel, there is no mystery: we’re told, right from the beginning, exactly how bad Don Pedro is. The question that the plot asks is not “How evil can a person be?” but “Is it possible for good to triumph over evil?” Can Julian save Don Pedro’s soul, or at least the earthly existence of his wife? Can his good Christian influence help regenerate the House of Ulloa?

Bazan’s conclusion, like those of many realist writers, is rather depressing; and I think on the whole I do prefer Gothic anxiety, Gothic excess, to the plain-spoken straightforwardness on display in The House of Ulloa. Which isn’t the book’s fault, of course; just a quirk of readerly preference.