The power and pain of fan­tasy worlds

Laura Wey­mouth’s The Light Be­tween Worlds serves as a loving cri­tique of the Nar­nia books, and Chris­telle Da­bos’s A Win­ter Prom­ise is a glow­ing ex­am­ple of the rare thing that is the YA novel in trans­la­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - CLAIRE HEN­NESSY

In her mem­oir of child­hood read­ing, Book­worm, Lucy Man­gan notes be­ing “sim­ply fu­ri­ous at the de­cep­tion” when read­ing CS Lewis’s Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia se­ries: “Sneak­ing this God stuff in with­out telling me!” For many young read­ers, it’s not quite that the Chris­tian par­al­lels go over their heads, but that the fan­tasy el­e­ments are suf­fi­ciently en­gag­ing in their own right for any other im­pli­ca­tions to go un­no­ticed. In a genre that of­ten pre­oc­cu­pies it­self with bat­tles be­tween good and evil, re­li­gious over­tones add a layer to, rather than com­pletely trans­form, the story.

It’s the smaller de­tails that tend to pro­voke un­easy feel­ings for adult read­ers, and one in par­tic­u­lar both­ers a num­ber of writ­ers, read­ers and crit­ics: “The prob­lem of Su­san.” The term, coined by Neil Gaiman, refers to Su­san Peven­sie’s ex­clu­sion from Nar­nia (ie heaven) be­cause she’s in­ter­ested only in “ny­lons and lip­stick” (in other words, sex). That hussy! Laura Wey­mouth’s The Light Be­tween

Worlds (Chicken House, £7.99) may be read as a loving tribute to the Nar­nia books – and it is, in many ways – but it also serves as a loving cri­tique, most ob­vi­ously in its re­sponse to that much-dis­sected phrase. “Pow­der and pumps. Jamie once told Eve­lyn that’s all I’m in­ter­ested in since the Wood­lands, but what he doesn’t re­alise is that you can wear pow­der like a shield, and wield the right lip­stick like a sword ... I go nowhere un­less I’m dressed for war.”

For Philippa, the “Su­san” in a tale of what hap­pens after a group of sib­lings re­turn from a mag­i­cal land (the Wood­lands) where time moves dif­fer­ently, cos­met­ics are her ar­mour. The bat­tle­grounds that pre­oc­cupy her are those of the “real” world, and she is all too aware of the trauma in­flicted dur­ing the re­cent se­cond World War. To imag­ine that the magic might have been pre­tend (a nod to Su­san dis­miss­ing the Peven­sies’ time in Nar­nia as “silly games”) is fiercely tempt­ing; al­though she doesn’t give in to it and recog­nises the Wood­lands were real, she is also a per­son who needs to live in this world.

Mean­while, her younger sis­ter Eve­lyn, who – as our “Lucy” – was re­spon­si­ble for the sib­lings end­ing up in the Wood­lands, sees it as the place she was “born to be”, as “home”. In her darker mo­ments, she notes, “I’ve seen this world. There’s noth­ing in it I want any­more.” As with Lewis’s work, this as­pect of the book works on mul­ti­ple lev­els – it is both a story about a girl who needs to be in the place she be­longs and a story about a girl who is crushed by our world; both fan­tasy quest and authen­tic de­pic­tion of de­pres­sion.

The ex­plo­ration of the psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of hav­ing lived in a Nar­nia-es­que world, then re­turn­ing (to be sig­nif­i­cant and then a mere child again, to know magic and then have it ripped away) is in­fin­itely more so­phis­ti­cated than in Lewis’s books, but of course that was never his pri­mary con­cern, and cer­tainly there are many read­ers who will be frus­trated with the fo­cus on the “real” world at the ex­pense of the mag­i­cal in Wey­mouth’s de­but novel. And they will be miss­ing the point. This is an ut­terly ex­traor­di­nary book that man­ages to feel com­pletely re­al­is­tic even as it delves into the fan­tas­tic. It’s one of the finest nov­els I’ve read all year.

Psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller

YA pow­er­house Lau­ren Oliver’s Bro­ken

Things (Hod­der & Stoughton, £17.99) also con­cerns it­self with oth­er­worldly realms ac­ces­si­ble from our own, al­though in this case there’s a ques­tion mark over whether three 13-year-old girls re­ally ever found scraps of Lovelorn, the land de­picted in an ob­scure novel that con­sumes them, or whether some­one tricked them into be­liev­ing they had.

Five years later, with one of them dead, and the other two blamed – if never legally con­victed – of her mur­der, the ques­tion ex­tends to whether the “fan­fic­tion” se­quel to the novel the girls penned might con­tain clues to what re­ally hap­pened. “We knew it was a story. But the story was also com­ing true.” This highly read­able psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller deftly ex­plores the power that sto­ries have over us, along­side its shrewd in­sights into the com­pli­cated dy­nam­ics be­tween teenage girls.

Women­with­weapons

An­other “writ­ing back” to a clas­sic this month is April Genevieve Tu­cholke’s The Bone­less

Mer­cies (Si­mon and Schus­ter, £7.99), a fem­i­nist reimag­in­ing of Be­owulf fo­cused on a band of mercy killers, young “women with weapons” who make oth­ers un­easy. Nar­ra­tor Frey yearns for a greater glory, “to be known. To be sung about.” To fight and de­feat the no­to­ri­ous beast.

Per­suad­ing her fel­low Mer­cies to join her, Frey soon be­comes en­meshed in greater strug­gles than she ever imag­ined – yet con­tin­ues in her brave quest. This com­pelling and lyri­cal tale about war­rior women is a de­li­cious read.

In­trans­la­tion

Fi­nally, a glow­ing ex­am­ple of the rare thing that is the YA novel in trans­la­tion: Chris­telle Da­bos’s A Win­ter Prom­ise (Europa Edi­tions, £12.99, trans­lated by Hilde­garde Serle), the first in a quar­tet, has al­ready been a run­away suc­cess in its na­tive France. Ophe­lia is not a typ­i­cal fan­tasy hero­ine; prone to ob­ser­va­tion rather than ac­tion, she nev­er­the­less un­cov­ers a great deal about the power strug­gles be­tween fam­i­lies when she is sent to the “Pole”, one of sev­eral frag­mented “Arks” that make up the world, as a bride-to-be for a man who is “as eco­nom­i­cal with his words as with his good man­ners”.

Her two gifts – be­ing able to “read” the his­tory of ob­jects through touch, and travel through mir­rors – of­fer up tan­ta­lis­ing hints about the na­ture of magic in this world, al­though its de­pic­tion is al­ways sub­tle and takes se­cond place to the po­lit­i­cal in­trigue. De­spite oc­ca­sional clunky mo­ments, this is a fresh and en­gag­ing ad­di­tion to the YA fan­tasy shelves.

Claire Hen­nessy is a writer and YA com­men­ta­tor

Above, Chris­telle Da­bos’s novel has al­ready been a run­away suc­cess in its na­tive France. Left, Laura Wey­mouth has writ­ten “one of the finest nov­els I’ve read all year”

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