Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Seasons of Splendour

There are a number of ways to anchor a tale: to a character, to a particular location, to a timeframe. Most novelists I read choose the  first, fewer the  second, and even fewer, the third. This is not representative of trends in general; as I said, most novelists I read do this.

In the  fantasy genre, which overlaps so much with the  more hazily defined myth and fairytale realm, it is easier, I think, to tether your story to a person, or a being of some kind. So much of your world, especially if its high fantasy, is foreign to your readers already. Usually, writers give them a crutch to hold onto as they enter this world, and that comes in the  form of an easily sympathetic character like Harry Potter, or Lucy Pevensie. Even Martin goes with this technique, preferring to reel readers in with morally relatable characters like the  Stark family first, before launching on them the  Lannisters and the  Greyjoys.

Two books I read recently depart from this use of character as anchor, instead going with the  third option: timeframe. They use the  central tenet of a season in order to frame a tale, and define the  things that happen with it. The flow of time, or what we humans perceive as time (Arrival, anyone?), and the  need to maintain that flow, ensure it is without disruption, is what forms the  central tenet of these novels: Eowyn Ivey’s The  Snow Child and Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong.

snow-childThe  Snow Child is set in Alaska, in the  1920s. It uses a tale familiar from many cultures around the  world. A childless couple, Mabel and Jack, arrive in Alaska, ready to start a new life. What they desire, perhaps more than anything, is a child, but tragedy has taken this chance from them time and again. One snowy evening, Mabel and her husband build a child out of snow, and afterwards, strange things start happening, beginning with a little child, Fiona, arriving in their backyard.

The  child becomes part of their lives, living with them in the  winter months, disappearing in the  spring and summer. Mabel’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep her within the  house clash with Fiona’s desire to return outside to the  world she knows, the  landscape she loves. Jack and Mabel find happiness in being with her, but for Fiona, they are one small part of her experience, of a world that also includes the  Alaskan mountains, and wolverines, and deep, pine forests.

The book drags a bit, the  characters becoming dull and a trifle predictable halfway through. Perhaps the  problem is that Ivey has picked a fairytale that is, all said and done, a short one, one whose ending cannot be anything other than melancholic. We know that for all Mabel’s attempts, Fiona will leave, whether it is through the  door and up into the  mountains, like a ‘normal’ human, or fading away into the  snow covered landscape, like her magical counterparts in the tales.

Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but I enjoyed Beagle’s Summerlong much better. This novel, or novella, I suppose, since it is almost unfairly short, is set in a lingering summer on Gardner Island, near summerlongSeattle. Abe and Joanna, a late middle aged couple, find their lives turned upside down when they meet Lioness Lazos, a beautiful, mysterious young woman, who waitresses at a restaurant they have been frequenting for years. Lioness seems to be on the  run from someone, and eager to help her, Abe and Joanna step in, Abe even offering her shelter in his home. In return, Lioness brings with her small acts of kindness, that take the  form of magic—plants unfurling from the  soil in moments, beached orcas being guided back joyfully into the  sea, balmy weather that shields the  island from its usual, wintery tempests. It doesn’t take long for Abe and Joanna, or readers, for that matter, to figure out who she is: Persephone, of the  Greek myths. And with that realization comes another: Hades must be on his way to find her.

Beagle’s prose is beautiful. Seriously, this was one of those few books where I found myself putting it aside, hoping to lengthen the  experience and savour it for a little longer. His evocation of the  gods and their role in this world, in keeping things running smoothly, is perhaps more poetically done than even that master of modern deities, Gaiman. Witness, for instance, Abe’s defense, to Joanna, of why Lioness must return to the  dark realm she so abhors:

‘Because if she isn’t coming and going with the  seasons, everything’s out of balance, everything…The  world needs winter, the  world needs volcanoes, the  world needs floods, storms, bloody hurricans, because you cannot have Primavera without nasty.Demeter has to grieve for Persephone when she’s away in the  Underworld, and Demeter has to rejoice when she returns…’

Beagle’s depiction of Hades, too, is similarly nuanced. Not the  cartoonish villain of so many other books, Hades here is a melancholic, thoughtful god, a refined individual who knows his role, and while he might lament it, must carry on with his job, as one of the  few of the  pantheon who still ‘matter.’ Beagle’s Hades weeps for the  wrongs he’s done to Persephone, the  long charade they must play, and the  forces even larger than him that have made him what he is. ‘There were three brothers,’ he tells Joanna with a bitter smile, ‘and the  youngest was given a realm that nobody wanted.’

Summerlong is a rare and beautiful book, melding larger questions of death and life and humanity into the  relatively short burst of 200 pages. It is a book that’s meant to be savoured, to be thought about, somewhat like Gaiman’s American Gods, the  book that comes closest in terms of theme. But Summerlong, like its title promises, has a completely different mood from the  latter. Where Gaiman’s Norse gods are champions of iron and blood, the  Greek deities here, and the people they are entangled with, literally and physically, are mellow, evoking images of sunny seas and pale yellow wines, bursting berries and nodding heads of wheat. But despite this, a truth is never far from Beagle’s, or the  reader’s ken: lying at the  base of all this beauty, and nourishing it, bis the  dark loam of the  soil, where the  dead things go.

Roses and Rot

The quarrel of Oberon and Titania *oil on canvas *45.5 x 70 cm *signed b.r. monogram and dated 1880

Since Susannah Clarke’s brilliant Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I hadn’t read a book that dealt with the Fae, those simultaneously entrancing and terrifying Folk, in any great detail. Well, there were Patrick Rothfuss’s books, but since those are epic, and not portal or ‘second world’ fantasy, I don’t really include them here.

And then I stumbled across Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot. It came to my attention thanks to tweeting from Neil Gaiman, an author whose work I love and who I trust to give me good recommendations. So without reading anything more about the book itself, or the author (I don’t really like doing the latter before I’ve read a book, to be honest), I went ahead and bought it.

roses-and-rot-9781481451161_hrI was not disappointed. Roses and Rot starts off slow, but Howard builds such an incredible atmosphere that you just have to surrender and lose yourself to it. Marin and Imogen are sisters, one light and one dark, one a dancer and one a writer, both prey to a horrible, hateful mother who has long desired to uplift the one and destroy the other. Despite their mother’s efforts, Marin and Imogen are the best of friends, the closest of siblings, and at the start of the book, arrive together to begin a nine-month residency at the prestigious artists’ and creators’ retreat: Melete.

The retreat is everything the two could wish for. Marin has the opportunity to work with, and eventually, fall in love with, Gavin, a famous dancer and head of a prestigious dance company. Imogen, soaking in the beautiful surroundings, embarks upon an ambitious project: a novel that weaves together the structure and metaphor of a fairytale, the stories that had sustained her, and her sister, during some of their darkest years. In Melete, they meet fellow artists, Ariel, a singer, Helena, a tortured poet, and perhaps most intriguingly, Evan, a sculptor of extraordinary talent, who seems to disappear, and reappear, among the bridges and elf maples of the campus.

As time wears on, readers discover that Melete and its residents pay a disturbing price for their success, one that might succeed in doing what the girls’ mother could never do: destroy their faith in one another, for good.

Roses and Rot is a fairy story, structuring itself as a large fairy tale with a wicked mother figure, beautiful, mysterious woods, charming mentor figures with strange pasts and magical talents, and mysterious, cursed love interests. It is also a Faery story, and that means the Fair Folk, those terrifying people who are, as an observant friend put it, ‘vicious and amoral’. Howard’s book really puts forth the question: what would you do to succeed in your art, to be remembered down the ages like Shakespeare and Beethoven? Many people would say ‘Anything’, but only those who go to Melete know what that really means.

For me, the most enjoyable bit about the novel was its atmosphere, the rich detailing Howard puts into the world of Melete, the interactions between its residents. I loved the relationship between Imogen and her mentor, Beth, the friendship that develops between her and Ariel, even the relationship between her and Evan. Howard’’s strength as a novelist is her characters, her minute observations of the manner in which relationships unfold between people who begin as strangers, lodged together in a house, and how time mutates them into friends, confidantes. Her characters are eminently relatable, and her setting, gorgeous. I found myself wanting to go to Melete, never mind the strange things that happen there. The Night Market would make it completely worth it.

Also, there’s a lot to be said for the fact that Howard’s book actually made me want to be part of a residency. I’ve never seen myself as someone who can shut themselves away from the world so completely and just write, needing distractions in the form of other work or engagement with people in order to function—-but Melete…oh I could do it for Melete. There’s something so luxurious about the idea of needing to do nothing but write, and surrounding yourself with people similarly engaged in artistic pursuits. Maybe some day.

The parts where the novel falters are, for me, Imogen’s writing. I loved her voice, and the manner in which she narrates her own story, but I couldn’t be similarly wowed by her literary work, whatever we see of it. Perhaps I’ve seen too many rewritten fairytales (John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is still, for me, the pinnacle of writing in this genre), but her writing didn’t grip me. Of course, she is a fledgling writer in the book, and her book within a book is not a masterpiece, not when we see it, at least. Luckily, these stories within stories are few and far between, and Howard takes us back to the world of Melete and its scary fairy friends soon enough.

Would I take the ‘deal’ that Melete offers? My answer’s a bit long-winded. Once you read Roses and Rot, you can get back to me and I will fill you in. No point in my spoiler-ing it right now.

What are you waiting for?

 The Ocean at the End of the Lane

There is something inherently disappointing about a hugely-anticipated book that you can, despite deliberate pacing and long work hours, finish in two days. The tragedy of this is only exacerbated when the book in question is by Neil Gaiman.

Yes, that’s right. You can finish The Ocean at the End of the Lane in two days. One, actually, if you’re not trying very hard to stop. Surely that makes something crumple a little and die inside.

Gaiman’s latest offering has been described by the author as his ‘best book’ so far. There have been rave reviews about it in a number of newspapers, there was a huge build-up with the three-chapter release, and the book comes studded with great endorsements from Erin Morgenstein and Joanne Harris, both writers celebrated for their ‘weird’, magical realist fiction. The cover too, in both editions, is gorgeous.

See? Pretty cover.
See? Pretty cover.

So what went wrong?

I hate to confess that I was not hugely overwhelmed by this novel. In fact, given the build-up and my anticipation/excitement, I was decidedly underwhelmed. I have read better Gaiman, and while I agree that the book certainly has its strong points, it doesn’t touch, in my opinion, the success with which The Graveyard Book or American Gods or even Smoke and Mirrors told their stories. Instead of leaving me with any of the satisfaction or awe that those books did, Ocean leaves me feeling confused, lost and a teensy bit annoyed.

What is it about? Well, that’s not precisely clear (intentionally so, one would assume, knowing Gaiman’s style). A little boy is witness to the dark forces unleashed by the death of a lodger. He becomes the target of those forces, and finds solace and safety with the Hempstocks, three mysterious women (of three different generations) who live on an idyllic farm at the (you guessed it) end of the lane. Of course, no fantasy novel worth its paper is going to end there, and there are complications and tribulations galore, in those quickly-turned 243 pages.

What I got from the first three chapters (posted pre-release) was a sense of darkness and foreboding, of forces bigger than human comprehension brooding upon and entering our fragile world. In short, it was a Lovecraftian ethos that permeated those pages, but unlike Lovecraft’s world, what I felt on reading Ocean was not mute, uncomprehending horror, but more a general what’s-the-big-deal sort of ‘eh’.

I am not saying Lovecraft is a better writer than Gaiman, of course. My heart will always belong to the latter. I just have a bad feeling that I’m either missing something massive in this novel, the finding of which would make the whole thing click together into awesomeness; or Gaiman hasn’t lived up to the hype in this particular book.

And that is something I just cannot bring myself to believe. Contemplate it, yes, but not believe.

The problem, perhaps, is that Gaiman is, in this book, walking too thin a tightrope. He seems to be telling the classic growing-up story, of a child discovering that the world is far more fragile than he had ever imagined, encased as he has been in the covers of adventure stories. The unnamed narrator learns that ‘Death happens to all things’, and that adults are never as self-controlled and perfect as he once imagined them to be. You cannot rely on your loving parents all the time, nor can you expect yourself (despite all the plucky school stories you might read) to be a hero when the time comes. Sometimes it’s all just too vast for you to comprehend, let alone handle.

There are some beautiful lines in the book, throwaway moments almost when Gaiman seems to be writing a letter to a younger self than a novel for adults. It is those moments that most resounded with me, such as when the child narrator wonders why grown-ups’ books are so boring, why they don’t read about adventures and fairies and magic. When he reflects on the self-centredness of his child-self, and how that is a trait peculiar to children, the belief that there is nothing more important than him/her in this world. That conviction of self-worth is one that is missing in the grown narrator (and, supposedly, his readers). Gaiman attempts, through this short novel, to remind us of a time when though we were helpless and alone and dependent, we did not rely on the straight and most obvious paths to take us home. Instead, like he points out, we wandered from dell to fairy circle and back.

But overall, I’m left feeling rather incomplete. I don’t understand what the ‘fleas’ in the book were, why (spoiler) such a creature’s name is significant at all, what on earth the varmint are and why they are so terrifying, and honestly, I’m still lost about the ocean. Maybe a second read will do wonders for my understanding and opinion. After all, I did appreciate American Gods much more on the second read. But, I must admit, I did enjoy it on the first. I did not leave me feeling just a little bit cheated.

Was it the hype? The fact that it’s a Gaiman? The fact that I’m jealous of his wife and the book is dedicated to her? (Okay, I’d like to believe I’m not so petty as all that.) I’m not sure. But what I do know is that Ocean is not what I would call, on the first go, Gaiman’s ‘best’ work. It is good, as all his books are, but far from his best.