Book Review

Fates and Furies: A Review

Fates and Furies

Lauren Groff

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While technically nothing to do with fairy tales, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies draws on, and heavily refers to, mythology  and archetypes… So I’m calling it close enough.

Fates and Furies is the story of a marriage, and while it really is an intensely self-involved portrait of a relationship, it feels bigger. Groff draws a wide net, pulling in a world of mythology, philosophy and experience and concentrating it all down to a simmering and dense relationship between two people.

Her use of myths could have become overdone – there’s an early doomed relationship between Lotto (Lancelot) and Gwennie (Guinevere), a play based on Antigone that reflects themes of the book itself, countless references to Greek works and mythology, many of which I probably missed – but she uses them wisely. We are even interrupted occasionally by small asides embedded in the text: a Greek Chorus commenting on the action. I found my thinking ‘this should seem overwrought, but it works’. Groff’s writing is clever. She know when to hold back, and when to reveal.

I read Fates and Furies as a digital galley, so didn’t realised until l was quite far into the book that it is split into two parts: Fates (from Lotto’s Point of view) and Furies (from Mathilde’s). Mathilde is intentionally keep at arms length in Lotto’s section: we see his obsessive love for her, we feel it, but she is almost a paper cut-out to us the reader. I realised this was intentional, but was glad to cut to her point of view in the second half of the book.

The Fates and Furies are not just used as a catchy title. Lotto himself really is rolled along by fate. Things to happen to him. There are few times when he actively reaches out, but when he does we may find later that maybe the Furies have had some hand in his fate. The Furies, in Greek mythology, “…were female spirits of justice and vengeance. … Known especially for pursuing people who had murdered family members, the Furies punished their victims by driving them mad.” Mathilde is driven by deep rooted anger and revenge. She loves Lotto passionately, there is a ferocity at her core.

Reading Mathilde’s Furies was a deeply satisfying experience after the excess of Lotto’s Fates. Compared to Lotto’s rollicking and ever-increasingly alcohol fogged escapades, it is pointed and well tuned. It fills in gaps, and reveals truths. Some are simply her truths, a changing of our viewpoint to understand her side of their marriage, while others will rock the foundations of what you believe to be true. It is both satisfying and heartbreaking.

I loved this book. There are kindnesses and cruelties, lucky breaks and terrible injustices, love and hate and great (and well written) sex. And there is incredible language: sentences that could have failed spectacularly if not for Groff’s brave and artful writing, a self awareness that could have glared painfully in lesser hands.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from the first page, which perfectly shows how Groff takes you to the edge of writerly excess, and pulls you back in again, and hope you’ll go get your own copy and read the rest:

For a minute they watched a tidepool full of spiny creatures that sent up curls of sand in vanishing. Then he took her face in his hands, kissed her pale lips. He could die right now of happiness. In a vision, he saw the sea rising up to suck them in, tonguing off their flesh and rolling their bones over its coral molars in the deeps. If she were beside him, he thought, he would float out singing.

Well, he was young, twenty-two, and they had been married that morning in secret. Extravagance, under the circumstances, could be forgiven.

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy through Netgalley. Fates and Furies will be released by Random House UK on September 15th, 2015.

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The Bird’s Child: A Review

The Bird’s Child

Sandra Leigh Price

From the back cover…

A novel of magic, birds, lost letters and love.

9781460750001Sydney, 1929: three people find themselves washed up on the steps of Miss Du Maurier’s bohemian boarding house in a once grand terrace in Newtown. Ari is a young Jewish man, a pogrom orphan, who lives under the stern rule of his rabbi uncle, but dreams his father is Houdini. Upon his hand he bears a forbidden mark – a tattoo – and has a secret ambition to be a magician. Finding an injured parrot one day on the street, Ari is unsure of how to care for it, until he meets young runaway Lily, a glimmering girl after his own abracadabra heart. together they form a magical act, but their lives take a strange twist when wild card Billy, a charming and dangerous drifter twisted by the war, can no longer harbour secret desires of his own.

The Bird’s Child is a feat of sleight-of-hand. Birds speak, keys appear from nowhere, boxes spill secrets and the dead talk. this is a magical, stunningly original, irresistible novel – both an achingly beautiful love story and a slowly unfurling mystery of belonging.

If you read last week’s review, you’ll understand I was at first a little wary at the promise of such lyrical sounding ‘magic’ in Sandra Leigh Price’s debut novel The Bird’s Child. I needn’t have worried. Price’s book is cleverly constructed, the characters made me feel something about them (and those feelings weren’t always empathy), and the magic in it is many layered and based in the real world. It is the magic of belief and connection; of deflection and sleight-of-hand; of love, faith and belonging.

The book is divided into three parts, named after the stages of a particular magic trick that features in the story: In Full View, The Switch and The Metamorphosis. It revolves around three characters, who alternate in narrating the story. Sometimes they are reliable narrators; sometimes we catch them out, and the truth is eked out somewhere between their three viewpoints. Price lets one contradict another, and then reflects more light into the story with each shift in perspective.

Billy is the first character we meet: a deceiving (and self-deceiving) drifter. We’ve all known people like him; not evil as such, but self obsessed and obstinate in the belief that the world owes them a favour. Women are a prize to be won, and Billy is adamant that he deserves first prize. (He’d be an internet troll nowadays. Just don’t get him started on Gamergate.) He is the most obviously unreliable of the three narrators and, despite wheedling small moments of empathy out of us, the reader, his psychopathic tendencies aren’t far from the surface. You’ll find yourself anticipating his comeuppance with glee.

Ari is caught between the confines of family and religion, and his own desires. A pogrom orphan, his mother is lost to him and his father was always a mystery. He carries a forbidden tattoo, which marks him apart from his Jewish heritage and sets him on his own course.

Lily begins as a something of cipher. She is the unobtainable ‘glimmering girl’ viewed in awe and at a distance by both Billy and Ari as they alternately narrate their way through the first third of the book. In this way we are distanced from her too, seeing her only through the growing obsession of the two male narrators. In Part 2, The Shift, we first move to her point of view, and then the story is shared between the three narrators for the rest of the book. It’s cleverly done. She begins as hardly more than a shimmer of light, emerges and appears far more delicate that birds she befriends, and finally, thankfully, rises phoenix-like as she finds her place in the world.

All three characters live as much in the past as the present, and Price deftly weaves the threads of their history into the novel’s present. There are several motifs that are bound into the story; birds are the strongest, but also amulets, poetry (in the form of song, prayer, the mutterings of the mad) and of course magic. Each character has his own relation to each of these. Keeping all those threads from tangling is no mean feat, and Price does it well.

If I have any quibbles, they are minor. I would have liked to have seen a little more of Miss De Maurier, as she and her boarding house are what bind the three protagonists. I felt she had her own story to tell, even if this book wasn’t the place for it. I was curious about the magic tricks and preparation for the stage too, and would have loved to have seen more, but as they say, a magician never reveals their secret. As I said, these quibbles are minor.

The Bird’s Child is marketed as a lyrical thing, all sparkle and glamour, but don’t be fooled by its stage magic. Look deeper, and it delves into belief, delusion and madness. Price balances lyricism with darkness, sparkle with grit, and skilfully keeps the scales from tipping too far either way. She has created a deft and gleaming debut novel.

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I’m thrilled that Sandra has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book. I can’t wait to read what she does next. For now, here she is talking about The Bird’s Child

I loved the structure of the book, particularly the three parts, just like a magic trick. Did you plot extensively before starting, or did it fall together as you wrote?

Thank you – I’m glad you liked the three parts to the magic trick – it was in the back of my mind trying to make the whole book have the feel and wonder of the reveal that happens in a magic trick. Not in a superficial grease paint sort of way, but  that moment when one suspends belief and blinks, before the mind can come in and explain what happens. To me that is the magic. I also had the plot of 19th century novel, Trilby by George Du Maurier, a twisted love story where mesmerism is involved circling in my head. And of course, the initial idea started with Ari’s mysterious tattoo – abracadabra – a word that is really like a Russian doll, it has meanings upon meanings.

As to plotting extensively, I had a basic idea, but I’m very much of the belief that the story has a life of it’s own, if I get crumbs to follow I follow them. Things show up from the subconscious that usually are better than what I stared with. A type of marinating.

The way you’ve used magic in the book is very clever. I was a little wary about the promise of talking birds, appearing keys, etc on the blurb, but it lies deeper than that. Can you talk a little about how threads of magic are woven throughout the book?

Again, thank you! It’s a little bit hard to describe isn’t it – it’s not realism but neither is it magic realism – somewhere in between. Magic in all its guises was something I was really fascinated by, but not in a fantasy/fantastical way, more the way we interact with magic in the day to day.  There is the obvious idea of the stage magician that I explored, but also the idea of folk magic and superstition’s use of amulets and incantations and of course the magic in religion, the parable, the miracle, the prayer and the words made flesh. The power of a lie believed is also a type of magic.

Billy was a character I really loved to hate. Did you find it difficult to write such an unlikable and unreliable narrator? Or was it damn good fun? …Or do you actually have a bit of a soft spot for him?

I’m glad you loved (and hated!) him too – I adored writing Billy, as soon as he opened his mouth (metaphorically) he filled the page with his particular outlook – that larrikin spirit gone wrong really – I think he was the easiest character to write because there are quite a few larrikins my family  (though none as twisted as Billy) and I love the Australian vernacular that is fast disappearing, the tall tale, the truth concealed in extravagant lies.

How does your average writing day look? Or is there such thing as an average writing day?!

My best sort of writing day is daily if I can – in the morning, in a cafe with several muse-loaded cups of coffee with my pen and notebook. I write all my first drafts by hand, which is probably crazy (The Bird’s Child first draft was about 26 skinny Moleskin notebooks long if you were wondering!). I aim to write about 4 – 8 pages and am happy if I do more. Then I usually go home and type up a part of it while trying not to re-read too much, just a little prune. Typing up my handwriting. Not so fun.

Can you tell us what’s next on your horizon?

My next novel is currently in progress. I’m quite superstitious about talking about it, as I sometimes think if I pin it down like a lepidopterist’s butterfly then the ideas and words will be dead on a board! But I can say it involves a strong female voice, the 19th century and outsiders. I’m following those crumbs.
Thank you Sandra. May those crumbs lead to magical places!

Lamp Black, Wolf Grey: A review

I was recently sent a review copy (via Netgalley) of Paula Brackston’s upcoming book Lamp Black, Wolf Grey. Hooray! I love review copies, and this was one I could discuss here on The Bone Lantern. In the end, I nearly didn’t write a review, and I’ll go into why at the tail end of the post.

The book follows Lauren, and her move from London to the Wales countryside in an attempt to inspire new artwork (and somehow also inspire pregnancy); and Megan, nursemaid to the sons of a Medieval lord and love interest to a young Merlin. Their timelines are woven together, binding each other tighter and tighter as the book progresses. It is something of a gothic romance, tying in historical and contemporary fiction, and a bit of horror towards the end. It’s not a challenging read, but it rollicks along well enough to keep you reading for an afternoon.

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The blurb promised to reach through “gossamer-fine veil that separates [our] own world from that of myth and fable”, and I was hoping for a more in depth exploration of the relationship between the two. There is so much current fiction that explores myth and fairy tales, and the way they influence and intrude on our ‘real’ world, that you really need to do amazing things to stand out from the crowd. Using the old ‘it’s magic, and that’s explanation enough’ exposition doesn’t really cut it. Saying that, Paula has blurred the lines cleverly in some places. Two characters at first appear to be one and the same, but diverge: one into legend, the other into human fallibility. Myth bleeds into reality, and she explores the idea of true ‘magic’ against flaws in the human mind.

Lauren, our contemporary heroine, is not the strongest of protagonists and her motivations not always clear, but her emotional arc is well played out. She begins the story as the archetypal childless Queen, setting out on a journey to reverse her infertility. Megan is the stronger of the two, attempting to survive a precarious situation in a time when women of her social standing were at the mercy of nearly everyone around them. Her story is one of survival and bravery, while Lauren mostly ponders her emotional wellbeing, though she does get a taste of proper danger towards the end. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of depth to the characters, particularly the secondary ones. They are kind and good; dark and mysterious; or simply mad, bad and dangerous to know. I want to see flaws in the innocent, and light shining through the cracks of the villainous. Maybe she was using archetypal characters as a reflection of the fairy tale narrative? Maybe I’m being kind.

The writing clunks a little here and there, but overall the narrative is well structured. The two storylines are tied together skilfully, with thematic and emotional threads binding them at key points in the story. Look, to be honest, I wanted to love this book, and in the end… I enjoyed it well enough. I kept reading, despite my frustrations with it. Maybe I came to the book with conflicting expectations, but now the question is, do I hit ‘publish’ on a ho hum review? Reviews that worship a book are interesting, ones that gleefully despise it even more so! But several paragraphs to say “well, it was ok…”?

If you’ve made it this far, one thing I can do for you is recommend some brilliant writing on a similar theme:

For those who want clever and powerful historical fiction involving fairy tales, read Kate Forsyth, particularly Bitter Greens, The Wild Girl, and her upcoming The Beast’s Garden. Also read Neil Gaiman, in particular his beautiful novellas (novellettes? They are short stories really, beautifully illustrated) The Sleeper and the Spindle and Hansel and Gretel. And of course the all great and powerful A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie…

Tell me, what else should I read? Do you have a contemporary book that involves myth and fairy tales, and blows you away with its creative power, dexterity and un-put-downable-ness? I want to read it too.