Review: The Icarus Girl

CW: stillbirth.

Written when the author was just 18, Helen Oyeyemi’s striking debut novel The Icarus Girl draws on Yoruba folklore and Western Gothic imagery to spruce up its treading of what’s ultimately fairly familiar thematic grounds. Its young protagonist, Jessamy, is the eight-year-old daughter of a Nigerian mother and a white British father, who, on a visit to her family in Nigeria, befriends a girl named Titiola, or TillyTilly. No-one else can see TillyTilly, and she can do apparently impossible things – early in the book, she opens a locked fairground gate and entices Jess inside. Is TillyTilly real – perhaps the vengeful spirit of Jess’ stillborn twin – or is she the product of Jess’ imagination, a double she’s hallucinating to deal with the vicissitudes of childhood and her own doubled cultural identity?

This isn’t a question the novel is interested in providing a definitive answer to; indeed, it depends for much of its menace and power on TillyTilly’s uncertain ontological status. Instead, Gothically, it uses TillyTilly as a device for exploring liminal states of being – between childhood and adulthood, between one culture and another, between life and death (as epitomised by stillborn Fern), between imagination and reality. The unknowability of minds that are separate to one’s own is a key theme: like many a YA heroine, Jess is profoundly isolated by her experience of TillyTilly, which her parents cannot access and do not understand. Thus one of the things that’s going on in The Icarus Girl is a look at that point in childhood when the child becomes unknowable to their parents; when, in other words, they start growing up. Jess is stranded between multiple identities, multiple constructions of her self – many of them imposed upon her by others – and those identities manifest in TillyTilly, an engaging and yet ultimately threatening doppelganger who represents Jess’ alienation from these aspects of her selfhood. To put it another way, Jess’ perspective, into which we are locked for the majority of the novel, diverges significantly from what her parents imagine it to be, and TillyTilly with her ambivalent status embodies the gap between expectation and reality.

So there’s plenty of Gothic resonance going on here, and I enjoy very much how Oyeyemi hybridises the Gothic’s historic interest in doubleness and duality with Yoruba folklore about twins: this merging of Western and Nigerian influences is a sort of distorted echo of the difficulty Jess has in reconciling her two cultural heritages. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the novel lacks ambition somewhere along the line: it’s hardly uncommon for writers, especially of fiction for children, to turn to models of duality in dealing with questions of biracial cultural identity; and once Oyeyemi has established the concept of TillyTilly as this ambiguously threatening figure she doesn’t develop it much. Jess and TillyTilly’s behaviour escalates, their relationship becomes increasingly contentious and dangerous, but it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. Just an additional extra wrinkle, an extra layer of complexity, might have brought greater specificity and force to a text whose concerns, as it is, remain somewhat generic. The Icarus Girl is undoubtedly an atmospheric and compelling novel; but it’s very much a first effort, paling as it does in comparison with Oyeyemi’s formally and thematically experimental later work.

Review: The Dollmaker

This review contains spoilers.

Nina Allan’s unsettling 2019 novel The Dollmaker is one of those books that confounds readerly expectations at nearly every turn. It’s the story of two doll collectors, Andrew and Bramber, who strike up a correspondence when Andrew answers a classified of Bramber’s asking for information about the fictional 20th century dollmaker Ewa Chaplin. After some months of this correspondence – of which we’re given Bramber’s letters, but never Andrew’s – Andrew finds himself infatuated, and sets off on a journey into the rural south of England to visit Bramber, who, as we know from clues in her letters that Andrew doesn’t seem to have picked up on, lives in a group home for people with mental illnesses. Interleaved with Bramber’s letters and Andrew’s first-person narration of his journey are a number of dark little fairytales purportedly by Ewa Chaplin that feature uncanny echoes of events in Andrew’s life. The figure of a dwarf, in particular – Andrew is just four feet nine inches high – crops up again and again, usually in the context of a forbidden love for a queen.

It’s hard to know what to make of these echoes, and Allan seems keen to uphold this uncertainty rather than resolve it: Chaplin’s stories are neither comfortingly hived-off from the main narrative, in which case we could read them as metaphorical only, nor literally connected to it on the level of plot. Similarly, Allan deflates our readerly expectations of Andrew’s story: his journey to meet Bramber against her will feels like it will end in disappointment and possibly murder (as Abigail Nussbaum points out), but instead there is a sense almost of anti-climax, a refusal to resolve the story either way. The future remains open for this pair: maybe something will come of this unlikely meeting of minds, but then again maybe it will not.

I think there is meant to be something redemptive and perhaps humanising about this uncertainty: both Andrew and Bramber are damaged, Andrew by an abusive relationship in his young adulthood and a lifetime of bullying and discrimination based on his stature, and Bramber by what she sees as her childhood betrayal of her mother. Their tentative rapprochement at the end perhaps signals an entry for both of them into a more moderate mode of life, one marked by the small compromises and uncertainties that we see in real, healthy relationships, especially at their beginnings, rather than the grand Gothic dramas of Ewa Chaplin’s stories or the hideousness that characterised both of their childhoods. An entry, in other words, into the world of what we might consider literary realism, out of the world of high romance or crime drama or horror story, all the genres that the novel as a whole flirts with.

Which is certainly an interesting thing to do: a process of de-fictionalisation, almost, of making these characters no longer characters who need to be in a story, and making that a triumph for both of them. But as a reader I personally found it unsatisfying: I wanted the text to cohere, to suggest possible meanings a little more forcefully, rather than leaving absolutely everything open and unresolved. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of Allan’s work: The Dollmaker may have failed for me on the whole, but it was at least an interesting failure.

Review: Fragile Things

Fragile ThingsNeil Gaiman needs little introduction: easily one of the bestselling and best-known SFF authors out there, he’s responsible for lucrative media properties including comic book series The Sandman, the novels Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) and American Gods, the TV adaptations of which have strong fan followings, as well as Stardust and Coraline, which have been turned into beloved feature films. He is, in short, a major voice in the field, commercially if not aesthetically; as an author who’s won numerous genre awards, he’s a good indicator of what kind of work the core genre community consistently rewards.

His 2006 collection of “Short Fictions and Wonders” Fragile Things contains 28 short stories and poems written between 1997 and 2006, four of which are Locus and Hugo award-winners; the collection as a whole won a British Fantasy Award and a Locus award in 2007. I emphasise this because, appropriately given the book’s title (although not in the way I suspect Gaiman intended it), almost every piece in Fragile Things feels slight, insubstantial, unmemorable; nothing here, to me, is remotely award-worthy.

Take those four winning stories. First up, “A Study in Emerald”, voted Locus Best Novelette in 2004, a Lovecraft/Sherlock Holmes mashup in which the monarchs of Europe are Great Old Ones. It’s one of the better stories of the collection, I’d say, but one that never rises beyond pastiche: certainly it never approaches the atmosphere of gibbering horror that lies just beneath the surface of Lovecraft’s excessive purple prose.

The same is true of “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire”, a Locus Best Short Story winner whose premise is so utterly facile that I am actively annoyed by it. The story’s protagonist lives in a Gothic mansion where melodramatic happenings such as shrieking ghosts, swordfights with estranged family members and ravens cawing “Nevermore!” are all commonplace occurrences; he finds escapism in writing what we would consider literary realism, which to him is fluffy fantasy. That’s it. That’s the story. It’s what I think of as a “punchline story”: a piece that’s structurally identical to a joke, in that it’s constructed solely around a piece of wordplay or an unexpected inversion or a literalised metaphor, without having anything to say beyond “look how clever I am”.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”, another Locus Best Short Story winner, falls neatly into this category too. The teenage protagonist attends a house party where he meets two girls who are actually aliens – except, because he’s already expecting teenage girls in general to be unapproachable, sophisticated and generally Other, he doesn’t actually notice. There is, as several commentators have noted, some truth in the notion that when you are fourteen it can feel as though people of other genders might as well be from another planet: teenage me certainly felt that way about boys. The problem here is that, as with many “punchline stories”, it’s painfully obvious from very early on just how the piece will turn out; as soon as the narrator’s friend Vic says the fateful words “They’re just girls…They don’t come from another planet” there’s no need to read any further. The boys meet the aliens; then they leave, and forget about them. Again, that’s it; there’s nothing else going on here.

“Sunbird”, the final award-winning story in the collection (another Locus Best Short Story), is, like “A Study in Emerald”, a reasonably competent piece that nevertheless makes little impact. An Epicurean Club whose members have spent their lives in pursuit of ever rarer delicacies take the opportunity to sample a phoenix, but things don’t go entirely their way. There’s a nicely folkloric slant to the tale, a resonant bit of poetic irony, but the piece lacks the sharp edge of menace it needs to make it truly effective.

In fact true menace, or at the very least a sense of Gothic atmosphere, is what’s missing from most of the stories in this collection – a problem that renders horror stories like “The Flints of Memory Lane”, “Closing Time” and “Feeders and Eaters” little more than shaggy dog stories. Ephemera like “Strange Little Girls”, “My Life” and “Diseasemaker’s Croup”, written to accompany, respectively, a CD, a photograph and a book of fictional illnesses, do little to add to the weightiness of the collection; the same is true of Gaiman’s poetry, which is overly literal and none too euphonious.

The one piece that I think really properly works here is also the only one I’d read before: the novella The Monarch of the Glen, which takes place in the American Gods universe. That novel’s protagonist, Shadow, is hired to provide security to what is apparently a highly exclusive weekend of revelry in a remote manor house in Scotland – only to discover that the weekend is a cover for a sinister and ancient ritual. This story possesses the atmosphere of menace, the folkloric resonance, that the rest of the collection is missing; there’s a sense of dark forces lurking beneath the apparently mundane everyday, and Gaiman does a good job of mapping his modern protagonists onto the myths he’s working from. There’s also a layer of social commentary here, the revellers’ privilege and entitlement contrasted with the itinerant lifestyle Shadow (a Black man who has been in prison) leads.

Overall, though, this is not an impressive collection. It’s not so much that these stories are bad: they’re decently constructed and clearly expressed; the dialogue mostly feels natural and authentic; the prose is competent. They are, in short, professional efforts by an author who’s been in the game a long time. But that’s the very least one should be able to expect from someone who’s received so much praise and recognition from the community. The pieces collected in Fragile Things have no teeth, no substance; as texts that aim to unsettle, they pull their punches too often to stick in the memory. I’m sceptical, to say the least, that any of these stories were the best of their year.

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 Waste Land

The Waste Land is a wondrous and entirely unexpected thing which I acquired for the princely sum of 20p at my local library: a graphic novel retelling of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist poem by Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson. It seems there are two editions of this gem: issues with Eliot’s estate meant a second edition had to be published – it’s this edition I’m reviewing here – which couldn’t quote any of the original poem; not that this seems to have affected the general parodic quality of the piece.

Anyway. The story, such as it is, follows a hard-boiled noir detective, Chris Marlowe (an escapee from a Raymond Chandler novel, or a seventeenth-century playwright, or both), as he searches for his missing business partner, Mike the Minoan, in Eliot’s Unreal City: London, though a disconnected and fragmented version of it. (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”)

A Goodreads reviewer, Liam Guilar, suggests that Marlowe’s search for his partner in Waste Land London is a performance of the search for meaning with which befuddled first-time readers approach Eliot’s poem – “the irony being the only coherence the poem has to offer is the reader’s search for it.” This is a brilliant and elegant reading which, frankly, I wish I’d come up with myself. (There are also interesting resonances here with the theme of the Grail quest Eliot threads half-heartedly through the poem.)

So Rowson renders Eliot’s text as place – specifically, as a nightmarish version of London, identified mainly (as it is in the poem) by the River Thames, curling its symbolic, stinking way through the text’s heart. Marlowe is literally a stranger in this city; in the first chapter of the book he’s knocked out and shipped across the Atlantic to London, and we see it through his stranger’s eyes – the caricature grotesquerie of Rowson’s art style rendering it larger than life and half-unrecognisable. As another Goodreads reviewer pointed out, rather less insightfully, “the story seems to jump all over the place.” Well, yes. That disconnection is pretty much the whole point of both texts: Eliot renders it linguistically, as a breakdown of cultural touchstones, a scattergun range of quotations and intertexts that don’t relate to anything, “a heap of broken images” with no shaping connective tissue; Rowson renders it narratively, in a search that doesn’t make sense with a solution that “is no solution” (Guilar again), and spatially, in a London that doesn’t look quite like our London, teetering on the edge of the familiar, and populated by anachronistic historical figures: Queen Elizabeth I in a modern-looking crowd on the banks of the Thames, Joseph Conrad in a London pub.

That spatial rendering is rather Gothic, in the sense that Rowson’s London looks and works a lot like the huge, impossibly rambly castles and country homes in Gothic literature – like Gormenghast and Manderley and the Navidson house. These Gothic spaces are uncanny: they take the familiar, ordered space of the home and render it unknowable, unmappable, architecturally impossible. The Gothic as a mode is often associated with the bourgeoisie, but here Rowson’s making a connection with Modernism too; a connection that’s always been latent, because if the Gothic disturbs the rational space of the home then it also, simultaneously, disrupts the rationalism of the Word – the Western Christian construct of the written word as holy, always true, a perfect window into the thoughts of men. The Gothic, characterised by linguistic excess (there’s a reason all those eighteenth-century moralists were appalled by the idea of young ladies reading The Mysteries of Udolpho), by sentence structures that you can get lost in just as you get lost in the corridors of the castles they describe, conceals and reveals the void at the heart of all things, especially at the heart of Western rationalism. And that’s something Eliot’s Waste Land, not to mention Modernism at large, is also urgently concerned with: “the centre cannot hold”, as Yeats wrote just three years before Eliot published The Waste Land; Western morality and thought has become a haunted house, the shared cultural and religious touchstones we used to have in common dissolved and vanished. “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.”

Why is this important? What does it add to our understanding of The Waste Land?

Something which I do find suggestive about Rowson’s treatment of the poem – which links back to Guilar’s point above about the search for coherency in Eliot’s poem constituting the only coherency the poem possesses or can offer – is that, for readers familiar with the original, it becomes a way to navigate Rowson’s text; we decode Marlowe’s search for Mike the Minoan by spotting the references to the poem, a self-reflexive circle which points out the essential meaninglessness of critical approaches to The Waste Land. The poem by its very form denies meaning, even obfuscates it deliberately; that’s ultimately what Rowson’s parodic treatment brings us to realise.

I still love Eliot’s poem, and you get the sense that despite his mockery Rowson does too. His graphic novel treats it as the cultural touchstone it (ironically) is nowadays, and yet it also uncovers and deflates the nihilism that lies behind its artistic vision (and, by extension, the artistic vision of much of today’s literary establishment). It seems sort of pointless to write anything else about The Waste Land – Rowson’s said everything there is to say. Which is good value, for 20p.

Theatre Review: Sleeping Beauty, a Gothic Romance

Who eats an apple a stranger gives ya?/And who needs a man to save and kiss ya?

Whitney Avalon

Sleeping Beauty is, on the whole, an obnoxious fairytale whose main female character is literally unconscious for basically all of it and which essentially entitles men to go kiss sleeping strangers with impunity.

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, a kind of modern ballet retelling of the story which just finished its run at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in Islington, does little directly to alleviate the original’s obnoxiousness, and I just want to flag that up before I begin. It’s still irritatingly sexist. But the interests of the tale lie in quite a different direction, and that’s where I want to go in this post.

The subtitle of Bourne’s ballet is “A Gothic Romance”. Although it’s difficult to define precisely what Gothic is – partly because it tends to be used as a synonym for “horror” – for me what characterises the mode (and, not uncoincidentally, many of my favourite novels) is a certain baggy quality to prose, a hypnotic form of overwriting, of semantic satiation, which both conceals and reveals the lacuna at the centre of existence, where words cannot go; the indescribable, circled by a whirlwind of text trying frantically to compensate; the unbridgeable gap between signifier, the Word (which for the purposes of this post, following Lacan, I’m going to call the Symbolic), and signified, that which is (Lacan’s Real).

The Gothic, then, would seem to be an explicitly textual mode, the province of the novel and the short story. But Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, dance though it is, certainly feels Gothic, especially in its second half, filled as it is with vampiric fairies, predatory gentlemen and symbolic sexual entrapment.

That last one is important, by the way, for two reasons. One: the Gothic, especially in its early incarnations, is obsessed with sex. Think of Dracula, of Udolpho, of Rebecca: these are novels about virginal young women locked up by sexually possessive older men, and this Sleeping Beauty is no different, seeing as it does its Aurora stolen away by the evil fairy’s son Caradoc. Two: sex in these novels is only ever symbolic, manifesting itself as the threat of a forced marriage, as rhododendrons and roses blooming in the garden, a dapper vampire stealing into a young woman’s bedroom at night, pricking her neck with his teeth. (And, yes, that’s a metaphor.)

That’s probably partly because we can read sex as a manifestation of the Real, an essentially primal act which disturbs our civilised self-image. It’s the fade-to-black which lies behind romance narratives; it’s one of the lacunae upon which the Symbolic teeters in those hyper-unstable Gothic tales. One of the functions of the Gothic is to reveal just how unstable our symbols really are; it’s one of the reasons why those novels are so unsettling and so threatening.

(The other major manifestation of the Real is, of course, death, which is random and irrational and impossible to make sense of. It’s not a coincidence that the threat of death is often inextricable from the threat of rape in the Gothic, and even before that the concepts are linked – in Shakespeare’s time the word “death” also meant, ahem, “climax”.)

So this gives us somewhere, finally, to start with Sleeping Beauty. (Yep, this is going to be a long post. Feel free to go make a cup of tea or something. I just did.) Of immediate and arresting interest is how the story is framed, right from the beginning: “Once upon a time,” projected subtitles read – vaulting us, of course, straight into the symbolic, metaphorical, textual land of the fairytale – a king and a queen have no child. They make a pact with the evil fairy Carabosse to gain a child “to call their own”. The text is specific about this last part: “to call their own”. Calling, naming, is framed as a way of symbolically integrating a child into a family which may not be really hers; there’s a suggestion that Aurora is actually born, or made, or whatever, in a storm, aligning her initially with the chaotic natural forces of the Real, only to have her subsumed into the Symbolic of palace life.

Thereafter, the show enacts a sort of gradual degradation of the apparently benign function of the Symbolic. Three of the four acts are structured around specific ceremonies: a christening, a coming-of-age, and a wedding.

The christening, as we know from the original fairytale, is partially a disaster: in a profane parody of the good fairies’ blessing of Aurora, the evil fairy Carabosse curses her; but the king of the fairies, Count Lilac, manages partly to undo the curse. The Symbolic is damaged, but not irreparable.

The coming-of-age scene is interesting. We see Aurora, identified, remember, with the Real, forced mostly unwillingly to participate in social custom, dressing up in restrictive clothing and dancing with eligible gentlemen, though she manages to scandalise the guests by taking her shoes off and dancing out-of-pattern (out of symbol). And she is forced by her parents, we assume in the name of social politeness, to dance with the predatory Caradoc, a symbolic courtship consummating in her pricking her finger on a glass rose and falling asleep for the requisite hundred years (a symbolic death, we note).

One beat which Bourne adds to the story, though, is the fact that Aurora has by this point already met her True Love, Leo, a gardener visually excluded from the royal circles in which Aurora moves and therefore outside the story’s Symbolic. Extending the couple’s association with the Real is the interesting fact that, refreshingly, Aurora and Leo seem to enjoy a fairly physical relationship, their expressive and passionate dance a world away from the carefully controlled social dancing of the coming-of-age scene. What’s particularly significant about this, in comparison to Gothic novels, is that it suggests that it’s not, actually, the act of sex that’s threatening and damaging; it’s the existence of the Symbolic which mystifies it and conceals its purpose and allows predators like Caradoc to entrap their victims. (Is this, incidentally, why Aurora’s parents are barren?)

It’s a theme that’s picked up in the final act: the wedding. Aurora, still not fully awake after her hundred-year sleep, is kidnapped by Caradoc and taken to his psychedelic Evil Fairy Court, there to marry her in another profane parody of a traditional sacrament. The point of this scene is that it’s symbolic; the show makes it very clear that there’s nothing actually stopping Caradoc from having his way with the unconscious Aurora (which is infuriating, and when will male creators stop fridging female characters, but that is by the by), but his lust is manifested symbolically, because, as we have seen, Caradoc is a creature of the Symbolic. It’s a scene that makes a beautiful contrast, tonally and visually, with the final scene, when Leo and Aurora are finally reunited: they step outside time (signalled throughout the show by projected dates: 1890, 1911, 2011 and “Last Night”), backed only by the stage-curtain concealing the lavish stage-sets. Significantly, there is no wedding-scene (remember, Gothic tales and fairytales both always end in weddings); they go to bed together, and the show is surprisingly frank about why – they return to the stage with a child. It’s a victory, as I read it, of the Real over the Symbolic, a victory only pointed up by the surprisingly weak closing subtitle: “And they lived happily ever after.” That phrase, of course, doesn’t begin to describe it; the story has moved on from the closeted symbolism of text, the wordlessness of dance setting the fairytale free.

A Gothic Romance, indeed.