Tuesday 24 June 2014

Saffron and Brimstone - Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand

America boasts no finer, more acclaimed or accomplished literary fantasist than Elizabeth Hand. Poetry, magic, and love intermingle as she tears down the walls that separate the mundane from faerie and fancy. In this stunning collection of eight “strange stories,” the multiple Nebula Award– and World Fantasy Award–winning author weaves spells that enrapture her readers, ranging freely from Greek mythology to the contemporary nightmares of AIDS and 9/11.

The celebrated chiller “Cleopatra Brimstone” chronicles the aftermath of a brutal rape and the bizarre transformation of a young entomology student into a vengeful angel of death. An emotionally unmoored tattoo artist discovers an unusual deck of tarot cards that enables her to profoundly alter bare skin and her personal reality in the mind-expanding masterwork “The Least Trumps.” An artist attempts to capture her wayward modern-day Odysseus in oils and otherwise; a woman tragically in love isolates herself from a catastrophe-prone world; the death of a dear friend inspires profound personal reflections and strange pagan rituals; and in the brilliant concluding story, an artifact from a lost world reveals the inescapable vulnerability of our own. Odd and touching, provocative and disturbing, the selections in this magnificent collection showcase a master of the fantastic at the very peak of her storytelling powers.

Goodreads description

This collection was first released in 2006 and has just been published by Open Road as an ebook. In doing so Open Road has again revived a gem for us magic realism fans. In my review of Hand's collection Last Summer on Mars Hill (also published by Open Road) I suggested that although the author is known as a writer of speculative fiction and horror a strong case could be made for her as a writer of magic realism. I think that case is even stronger with this later collection. The stories seem more realistic, the fantastical grounded in important issues. We see again the themes that appeared in her earlier work - reworking of Greek classical mythology, isolation and loneliness, alternative lifestyles - but the stories are even stronger.  

Cleopatra Brimstone is probably the most conventional horror story in the collection. It left me unnerved, not by the horror (although that is not my favourite genre) but by the psychology. Hand carefully draws the psychology of the two sides of the central character, but then introduces a secondary character whose motivation is not clear. As a feminist, I was not sure what to make of this and the resulting ending.  Nor am I sure about the decision to place this story first in the collection. It seems sufficiently out of keeping with the other stories as to make it an unsuitable introduction.

If I had doubts about the first story in the collection I loved Pavane for a Prince of the Air. An account of the sudden illness and rapid decline of a close friend and mentor rang so true (painfully so) to me. My instinct is that this story is based on true life. For the most part the story is totally realistic. Even if the dying man is a hippy and believer in various alternative faiths, the narrator is not, which makes the ending utterly magical.

The Least Trumps is a fascinating story that explores loneliness and creativity (especially the impact of children's fiction and its writers).  This story has a theme of links to place (literally as the central character is agrophically attached to her remote island home) which appears in several stories. Hand has great skill in her portrayal of place and her characters' relationship to it.

Wonderwall is an account of an alienated young student's descent into the wild side and smashing into the wonderwall. Will she come through this self-destructive stage in her life and will her friend? The account is superbly graphic and realistic. 

The second part of the book is entitled The Lost Domain and is made up of four shorter stories or story variations. All are variations on Greek mythology.  The first, Kronia, is the most experimental section in the book - a series of recollections by a man and a woman weaving in and out of each other, creating a collective and at times conflicting impression of memories. 

In the second variation, Calypso in Berlin, Odysseus's abandoned lover Calypso may be living in the twenty-first century but she is still being abandoned. This time she plots to keep her lover when he returns.  Again we see Hand's skill at portraying place, as well as the magic of art (Calypso is a painter). 

Echo is a superbly subtle post-apocalyptic piece. Like the character in The Least Trumps, Echo lives on an island and waits eagerly for the irregular correspondence of those she loves. But then some unspecified disaster happens on the mainland and her wait becomes almost unbearable. 

The final piece also touches on an apocalypse. The Saffron Gatherers of the title appear in a wall painting in Santorini. Santorini is a place that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption and at the same time its artwork was preserved by the volcanic ash. The central character is a journalist researching the story of Santorini, who appears just about to settle down with her long-term long-distance lover in San Francisco, but before she does, history repeats itself in a shocking conclusion. 

I have said before that magic realism has much in common with poetry, in particular how themes and images are woven together to create great depth. I have barely touched on the many themes and images in this collection nor the expert way Elizabeth Hand weaves them into her story.  It is not possible with the restrictions on space in this blog. You will have to read the collection yourself and I will have to read it again.

I received this book from the publisher in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

So Far From God by Ana Castillo

Tome is a small, outwardly sleepy hamlet in central New Mexico. In Ana Castillo's hands, though, it stands wondrously revealed as a place of marvels, teeming with life and with all manner of collisions: the past with the present, the real with the supernatural, the comic with the horrific, the Native American with the Hispano with the Anglo, the women with the men. With the talkative, intimate voice and the stylistic and narrative freedom of a Southwestern Cervantes, the author relates the story of two crowded decades in the life of a Chicana family.
Publisher's description

On the face of it in this account of the lives of Sofi and her four extraordinary daughters magic realism meets tv soap opera. In chapter one the baby La Loka dies, rises from the dead and flies up to the church roof. Fe, another daughter is dumped by her boyfriend and screams for weeks. Caridad, daughter number three, is attacked, mutilated and left unconscious.  Esperenza, Sofi's eldest daughter, eventually breaks up with her boyfriend, who has got into Native American religion. Then at the end of the chapter Sofi's long-absent husband reappears and Caridad and Fe have miraculous recoveries. Beat that EastEnders!
The book continues like this. Each chapter is like a mini story, a fact reflected in the chapter headings: Chapter 1's was An Account of the First Astonishing Occurrence in the Lives of a Woman Named Sofia and her Four Fated Daughters; and the Equally Astonishing Return of her Wayward Husband. 

The tone of the writing reflects this rather folksy approach with Spanish words and phrases slipping in among the English, the regular use of double negatives and similar. This is meant to make you feel as though Ana Castillo is sitting with you and telling you the story. But I am afraid that the style at times confused this English woman. I found myself trying to work out what was being said (this was particularly true of the double negatives), which has the opposite effect to the one the author intended.

Soap opera is an interesting comparison for this book. The best soap operas (in the UK at least, I don't know about those in other countries) actually tackle complex and difficult subjects. This book certainly does just that. Feminism, environmental issues, big business exploiting poor communities, the worth of women's communes - all feature in the book. 

The magic realism in the book is on the face of it typical Latin American magic realism - La Loka flying through the air for example - delightful magic without obvious roots. But look closer and you will find roots in both Chicano myth and religious symbolism. The names of the key characters are chosen carefully: Fe - faith, Esperanza - Hope, Caridad - Charity. What happens to the daughters is that they have their faith, hope and charity abused. The book seems to have an ironic take on how Christianity is interpreted. Both Caridad and La Loka are regarded as saints by local believers and in the final chapter Sofi sets up and becomes the first president of an organization called Mothers of Martyrs and Saints. 

Despite the veneer of Christianity, the old religions and beliefs are still very present. La Loka regularly sees and communicates with a strange blue woman near the stream. Sofi identifies the woman as La Llorona: Who better but La Llorona could the spirit of Esperanza have found, come to think of it, if not a woman who had been given a bad rap by every generation of her people since the beginning of time and yet, to Esperanza's spirit-mind, La Llorona in the beginning (before men got in the way of it all) may have been nothing short of a loving mother goddess.

This is a really interesting book to read alongside the Latin American magic realist classics and one which deals with themes that greatly interest me and I think will engage other readers too.
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Wednesday 11 June 2014

Time of the Locust by Morowa Yejide

Travel into the heart and mind of an extraordinary autistic boy in this deeply imaginative debut novel of a mother’s devotion, a father’s punishment, and the power of love.

Sephiri is an autistic boy who lives in a world of his own making, where he dwells among imagined sea creatures that help him process information in the “real world” in which he is forced to live. But lately he has been having dreams of a mysterious place, and he starts creating fantastical sketches of this strange, inner world.

Brenda, Sephiri’s mother, struggles with raising her challenged child alone. Her only wish is to connect with him—a smile on his face would be a triumph. Meanwhile, Sephiri’s father, Horus, is sentenced to life in prison, making life even lonelier for Brenda and Sephiri. Yet prison is still not enough to separate father and son. In the seventh year of his imprisonment and the height of his isolation, Horus develops supernatural mental abilities that allow him to reach his son. Memory and yearning carry him outside his body, and through the realities of their ordeals and dreamscape, Horus and Sephiri find each other—and find hope in ways never imagined.

Goodreads description

Wow, what a book! It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel from Morowa Yejide. It is so accomplished, working emotionally, visually and verbally. 

The book is about several themes. The first is imprisonment. Horus is literally imprisoned in an establishment that is closer to a Guantanamo than a regular prison, a place where the prisoners (or rats as they are called) have their spirits broken. There is meant to be no escape both physically and mentally. Sephiri is imprisoned by his autism and Brenda is imprisoned by her roles as mother to a child whose behaviour is at the severe end of the autistic spectrum and as the wife of a "cop killer". 

The second theme is communication. Clearly Brenda and Sephiri cannot communicate with each other verbally (Sephiri cannot speak or understand words) and there is no communication between Brenda and Horus, nor is there any real emotional communication between Brenda and other people, including Horus' emotionally damaged brother, Manden. 

The last theme is the way emotional damage is carried from childhood and even passed down between generations. This is reflected in all the people who appear in the book, including a sadistic prison guard and the prison warden. Much of the book is about the unravelling of the back story - how and why Horus killed a man, understanding how Brenda turned from a pretty woman hopeful that she will be able to save her husband to a woman who is killing herself with overeating and why Manden reacts the way he does. 

All this could be too depressing, and indeed at times it is very painful to read, but Yejide offers a magical answer. Sephiri has an alternative world to the one that scares him. This world is not presented as an imagined or dream world but as an alternative reality. Horus too finds an alternative: a route out of his foul-smelling concrete cell, through the catacombs beneath the prison where extinct locusts are stirring to the shore of the sea on which his son is floating. Love finds a way.

This book has everything I look for in a novel: in-depth psychology, beautiful use of words and images, strong themes,  magic that is not about escaping serious issues, and an element of uplift. 

I received this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.
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Wednesday 4 June 2014

St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Charting loss, love, and the difficult art of growing up, these stories unfurl with wicked humour and insight. Two young boys make midnight trips to a boat graveyard in search of their dead sister, who set sail in the exoskeleton of a giant crab; a boy whose dreams foretell implacable tragedies is sent to 'Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers' (Cabin 1, Narcoleptics; Cabin 2, Insomniacs; Cabin 3, Somnambulists. . . ); a Minotaur leads his family on the trail out West, and finally, in the collection's poignant and hilarious title story, fifteen girls raised by wolves are painstakingly re-civilised by nuns.
Amazon description

Karen Russell has gone on to write several more highly acclaimed books since this, her debut collection of short stories. "Outrageously imaginative and profoundly funny... surreal... impressive," announces one of four glowing reviews on the back cover. I therefore approached St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves with high expectations. And it is without doubt full of impressive, surreal stories. Karen Russell has an extraordinary imagination, rich vocabulary (which had me reaching for the dictionary on occasions, not always with success) and strong writing style.  But as for profoundly funny - I'm not sure I was reading the same book. There were some amusing descriptions but many of the stories left me feeling sad and one - The Star-Gazer's Log of Summer-Time Crime - I found so unsettling (partly for personal reasons) that I didn't finish it.

As is always the case there were some stories which worked better for me than others. My favourites were Haunting Olivia, in which two brothers search for their drowned sister, from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration, an account by the son of a Minotaur, and St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. 

In these and in other stories Karen Russell presents a familiar but surreal version of small-town or rural America. Several of the stories are set in the same run-down Louisiana area, with characters and places reappearing.  The themes of her stories are very real. The title story might be seen as a fantasy account of the historical treatment of the children of aboriginal peoples in schools in which they were "tamed" and taught to despise the ways of their parents and ancestors. It is also a story of children or young people ganging up on others. One girl refuses or is unable to be tamed and the pack (including her own sisters) turn on her. Isolated or outcast children form a common motif throughout the collection and the conclusions of the stories aren't exactly happy ones.  That's if they have a conclusions. 

As I have noted elsewhere on this blog, magic realist short stories often seem to be inconclusive and in previous reviews I have said that this hasn't bothered me. On this occasion however the inconclusiveness was so great that it felt as though the stories were actually half-finished novellas or indeed novels. (What it must be like to have so many story ideas!) All of which suggests to me that I should read Russell's  novel Swamplandia which is set in the same run-down amusement park as the first story in this collection. I have no doubt after reading this book that I want to read more of Russell's work. I will be interested to see if she continues to portray the world through the eyes of young people, which she does brilliantly, or expands to include the adult point of view. (There is one story in the collection which has the POV of an elderly man).  And I would like to know what happens in the end.