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Flyaway, Kathleen Jennings, Tor.com, 2020, $19.99, hc
Unbecoming, Lesley Wheeler, Aqueduct Press, 2020, $17.49, tpb
Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan, Usman Malik, Kitaab, 2021, $25, hc (https://www.usmanmalik.org/product/midnight-doorways-fables-from-pakistan/)
"STORIES try to make sense of a land in a lot of ways," an old grandmother tells her grandson near the end of Kathleen Jenning's Flyaway, "especially when they've first got their hands on it." The land under discussion is Australia, though it's never named in this beautifully written, often chilling short novel. Retellings of classic fairy stories, in particular those drawn from the folk traditions of Northern Europe and the British Isles, have become their own industry in the last few decades. Angela Carter's groundbreaking 1979 collection The Bloody Chamber paved the way, with its feminist take on Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, and other stories.
Writers took note and followed Carter, often with distaff renditions of classic texts. In 1993, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling teamed up to edit Snow White, Blood Red, the first of what became a long-running and successful series of anthologies. The last few decades have brought myriad new works, not just in literature but film, TV, and games, expanding the remit to include traditions and cultures beyond the well-known and well-worn Western canon of folk and fairy lore. All of which underscores the challenge involved in spinning a truly original modern fairy tale, especially one that draws on British folklore. Australia is a fit place for this.
Happily for readers, Kathleen Jennings is a master spinner (the original source of the term "distaff" in referring to women's work, including storytelling) and weaver of tales. Raised on a cattle station in Western Queensland (she now lives in Brisbane, the state capital), Jennings is an award-winning illustrator as well as a writer, and one of her gorgeous black-and-white woodcuts accompanies each chapter heading. This adds to the sense of a fairy tale for grownups, but with Tasmanian wolves and bandicoots standing in for the grey wolves and bears that populate European stories. She sets her novel in a remote part of the country called Inglewell, which consists of three towns or hamlets: Woodwild, Carter's Crossing, and Runagate. Woodwild has pretty much been left to return to wilderness, as has Carter's Crossing, barely a settlement in the first place. Runagate alone maintains a precarious respectability, and this is where nineteen-year-old Bettina Scott lives with her stay-at-home mother, "pale, delicate Nerida Scott, who wilted like a garden in the heat of the day."
Their mother-daughter dynamic sets off readers' warning bells from the start, with an echo of the sickly sisterly closeness of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But, unlike the disintegrating gothic pile in Jackson's novel, Bettina's home is claustrophobically clean and tidy, with the "prettiest-kept" garden "on the handsomest street in Runagate." The time period is left deliberately vague, despite passing mentions of the internet and mobile phones, and while the rest of Runagate (an archaic word meaning vagabond;—as in John Crowley's Little, Big, the names of people and places carry extra weight in Jennings's novel) has a suitable air of mild dishevelment, the Scotts' house is a disorienting vision of mid-twentieth century White prosperity.
Yet, while Bettina's too-well-regulated, prissy behavior and constant self-monitoring, along with the peculiar deference paid to her and her mother by the rest of the town, suggest a scenario out of Westworld or The Stepford Wives, something weirder and more organic is at work. There's the mystery of what happened to Bettina's missing father and her two older brothers, about whose fates she seems uncertain and oddly uncurious. Why doesn't Bettina have any friends her own age, or, indeed, any friends at all? And why does she have only a hazy memory of any events that occurred more than three years earlier?
A near-collision with a pickup truck when she's out riding her bicycle is the first fracture in Bettina's too carefully maintained world. The driver of the truck is Gary Dawson, a former classmate—perhaps friend, perhaps even boyfriend, she can't recall—of Bettina's. She pedals home frantically, where she finds the word MONSTERS freshly painted on her home's white picket fence. Before she cleans off the paint, she sorts through the day's mail. Circulars, letters to her mother from friends in distant countries, and a dirty envelope bearing only a single word: TINK, the telling childhood nickname bestowed on her by her vanished brothers. Inside the envelope is a three-year-old newspaper clipping, detailing the hijinks of three teenagers—YOUTHS RUN AMOK—and the same three words shouted at her by Gary not an hour earlier.
YOU COWARD, TINK.
The letter sets in motion a chain of memories as well as events, as Bettina finds herself, along with Gary and another high school friend, Trish, riding through the bush country. The road trip is Bettina's idea: She's not quite sure what she's in search of, but the deeper into the wilderness they go, the more Bettina starts to remember of her own past. Trish has been away at university, and can't reconcile the prim, dull Bettina with the wild girl she grew up with, the girl other kids were warned against. At first Bettina thinks Trish is lying, but as Runagate loosens its hold upon her memories, she starts to feel differently.
All three young people were once friends, their families linked in ways that become more clear as the book progresses. The Dawsons are fencers, makers and keepers of boundaries. Trish's father is the town's sole policeman; her mother, like Bettina's father and brothers, disappeared long ago. The chapters that detail their journey alternate with ones in which local legends and old tales are recounted, Antipodean retellings of familiar tales—"Red Riding Hood," "The Pied Piper of Hamlin." Most memorably, eerie accounts of a shapeshifter called the megarrity flicker through the novel like memories of a bad dream. Meggarities prey on other creatures by mimicking them, repeating their words, as in Ovid's tale of Echo and Narcissus. "After it had gnawed them clean and sucked out the marrow, it always piled the white bones together and folded the skin neatly on top." A meggarity plays a trick on the owner of a cattle station, a man who has quietly been killing off the region's indigenous people. Or has the man fooled the meggarity?
At first it seems as though these sections are bits of local color, Easter eggs for fairy tale fans. Gradually it becomes apparent that Jennings is up to something far darker and stranger. The tales and legends are all drawn from the folklore of the British Isles, reflecting the ancestries of the White people who colonized Australia—Irish, Scottish, English, Welsh. The tales they carried with them have been transformed over generations, as the colonizers themselves have been. Bones and hides are everywhere, and have a power reminiscent of those in "The Juniper Tree" or the skeletal figure of the Mari Lwyd. Vegetation too ripples with a sinister beauty: "Trees like lanterns, like candles, ghosts and bones. The fibrous skeletons of moth-slain cactus and beetle-eaten lantern-bush leaned over the opal-veined bulk of petrified limbs spilled in empty creek beds. Trees bled resin like rubies, sprouted goiterous nests, suspended cat's cradles of spiderwebs, spinning disks of silk. Trees stood hard as bronze in still sunlight, and stirred like a living hide in the rolling advent of a storm."
Like the lantern-bush that overtakes a town in the tale that echoes both "The Pied Piper" and "The Sleeping Beauty," the colonizers are an invasive species, one whose adaptations to their harsh environment inevitably destroy it. They, too, are part of an ongoing story, but they've ceased to recognize their parts in it. Flyaway shows the process of self-discovery, as Bettina, Gary, and Trish learn or remember their own roles in the legends of which they are a part.
The fate of Australia's native peoples is the lacuna at the heart of this novel, a terrifying absence that, like Bettina's amnesia, informs everything that unfolds. Jennings acknowledges this in an author's note: "There are stories I am still learning, and many that aren't mine to tell." The tale she does tell takes a surprising (to me) turn at the end, an homage to one of the great twentieth-century works of fantasy. At first I feared the story might go off the rails, but Jennings has a steady and confident hand on the controls. I immediately went back and reread her short novel and, indeed, the clues were there from the beginning, and the final twist brings into focus everything that has gone before.
Like our own country, Australia is littered with the bones of those who were slaughtered to make way for White farmers and ranchers and miners. As Bettina realizes at the novel's end, Runagate's people, like the town's tidy English gardens, "grew from blood and bone, murder and power." Most myths and fairy tales are reckonings of one sort or another. In her brilliant short novel, Kathleen Jennings reminds us that Australia's atonement is a tale that's only begun to be told.
The Fair Folk don academic garb in Unbecoming, Lesley Wheeler's sly novel of magical doings at a twenty-first-century university in Virginia. A poet and essayist, Wheeler teaches English at Washington and Lee University, and one wonders what her colleagues think of this astringent take on life in the Ivory Tower.
Cyn Rennard, the narrator, has just bidden farewell to her English department colleague and best friend Alisa. A peculiar and unexpected opportunity has arisen for Alisa, a Victorianist who's been seriously depressed since her longtime partner left her: A mysterious university in Wales has offered her a temporary position, complete with her own thatched cottage as living quarters. In exchange, the Welsh school has sent their own Victorianist, the impossibly glamorous, possibly ageless Sophia Ellis, known as Fee.
Fee seems oddly if imperturbably clueless about the demands of contemporary academic life. "I don't know how universities work over there, but when I started describing HR forms, she just blinked," Cyn confides to her fourteen-year-old daughter, Rose. "Like bureaucracy was below her pay grade.... I couldn't nail her down about teaching, either, whether she needed to order different books. She just quoted Christina Rossetti at me."
From the outset, Wheeler lays all her cards on the table. Fee brings mushrooms to the welcome potluck Cyn hosts for her. She feeds ripe cherries to Dan, the department's requisite buff novelist, who's immediately smitten. She smells like flowers, inspiring one of Cyn's male colleagues to call her Titania, whereas middle-aged Cyn is peri-menopausal with an off-campus wardrobe consisting of gray shirt and saggy pants that Rose terms "a groutfit." Yet for all her juggling of mundane work (in Alisa's absence, Cyn has taken over as chair of the English Department) and home (teenage twins, a psychologist husband who's taken a temporary teaching job in another state), Cyn's last name and affinity for foxes are clues to her own true nature, as is her memory of an imaginary childhood friend, Sister Fox.
Things get really weird when Cyn's hot flashes seem to trigger a series of uncanny dreams, and near-disasters that occur whenever she absent-mindedly makes a wish. Alisa fails to respond to any of her attempts to reach her by phone, text, email, or fax. Then there's the beautiful but eerie painting that seems to be a portal, or maybe that's just another dream. When Cyn finally does hear from Alisa, months after her departure for Wales, it arrives as an old-fashioned letter and is anything but reassuring.
"A couple of the sentences were in an unfamiliar language—Welsh, maybe? Even her English was cryptic: Time passes differently here. The seasons seem strange."
For all the visible trappings of Faerie, Unbecoming is strongest in its depictions of Cyn's workplace friendships and maneuverings as department chair, as well as her interactions between the twins and her husband Silvio, who's being tantalized with the possibility of a better-paying, tenure track position in North Carolina. Wheeler deftly and often hilariously skewers the lobbying, passive-aggressive parrying and arch office chat that's endemic on college campuses, where tenure in the twenty-first century is as mythical a prospect as the sight of a unicorn. Case in point: a dust-up between Sandra, an older, tech-challenged medievalist, and Camille, one of the school's three African-American professors.
By the start of the new semester, the English Department's future is under threat by administrators who want to focus on STEM classes. Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement make incursions into campus politics, threatening the White hegemony that's held sway over the university since its founding. Cyn's wishes, conscious or not, continue to misfire as she starts to wonder if Alisa is truly the person Cyn thought she was.
In its depiction of a middle-aged woman coming to grips with her potential for otherworldly powers, Unbecoming is reminiscent of Sylvia Townsend Warner's great 1926 novel Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman, in which an eccentric spinster embraces the life of a hedge witch rather than submit to her male relatives' plans for her. And beautiful Fee, with her detached beauty and somewhat chilly emotional temperature, harkens to the Fair Folk in Warner's 1977 collection Kingdoms of Elfin. If the fantasy elements in this striking first novel simmer rather than come to a full boil, perhaps that's because the human ones—husband, children, friendship, a meaningful work life—add even more savor to the Cauldron of Story.
Usman Malik has been publishing short fiction since 2004, but it was his story "The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family," published in Qualias Nous in 2014, that established him as one of the most singular and brilliant new voices in literary horror. His debut collection Midnight Portals: Fables from Pakistan should cement that reputation. It contains seven stories, most of them long form. Several have been awards finalists (including two Nebula Award nominees) or appeared in Year's Best collections, and "The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family" received the Bram Stoker Award, the first for a Pakistani writer.
Based in Florida (though now in Lahore due to the pandemic), the Pakistani-American Malik is also a rheumatologist. A physician's compassion informs all his work, along with a healer's insight into illness and the inevitability of death. He casts an unblinking gaze on the ravages of decay wrought by disease, often coupled with the moral decay wrought by the destructive contemporary politics in the Middle East. His writing is lush, gorgeously descriptive, and astute in its depiction of families bound by love and belief, but all too often torn apart by poverty, natural disaster, bombs, and religious traditions that can provide solace and moments of transcendence but also hobble and destroy lives, especially women's lives.
In "The Vaporization of Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family," a young woman, Tara Khan, finally escapes from the constraints of her family to attend university.
"At thirteen she had been withdrawn from school; she needed not homework but a husband, she was told. At sixteen she was wedded to Hasim; he was blown to bits on her twenty-first birthday. A suicide attack on his unit's northern check post."
At university, she studies physics, which gives her a template for understanding the supernatural power she inherited from her mother—the ability to heat her body past the boiling point. This power doesn't make an appearance until the story is well underway: In Malik's fiction, the supernatural isn't so much a magical tool as a blood inheritance to be treasured or squandered, and sometimes deployed in extremis. A devastating flood followed by a string of terrorist attacks fuels Tara's powers: "At very high temperatures, essentially all electrons are assumed to be dissociated resulting in a unique state wherein positively charged nuclei swim in a raging 'sea' of free electrons. This state is called the Plasma Phase of Matter and exists in lightning, electric sparks, neon lights, and the Sun."
The story is a tour-de-force, as Malik draws on the 2014 Peshawar terrorist attacks that killed 150 schoolchildren as well as Islamic lore and ancient Middle Eastern oral traditions to create an indelible portrait of female, and familial, rage and love, ending in a vision of the possibility of "grace and goodness and a hint of something to come, no matter how uncertain."
All of the stories in Midnight Portals are strong. While most are set in Malik's native Lahore, not all are grounded in current events, though terrorist attacks, flooding, and religious strife infuse the atmosphere—a toxic, inescapable incense. "Ishq" takes its title from an Urdu word that has no English equivalent. A Pakistani woman dying of cancer shares with her American son a secret family history, both love story and ghost story. "Why?" he wonders. "I guess she wanted them remembered. Wanted the wholesomeness of their truth, their Old World strangeness to carry on, no matter how unlikely they seemed."
The tale draws in part on Malik's own family history and draws to a moving conclusion as the narrator conflates his own longing for a country he's never seen with the ghostly love story: "Ishq. It means the state of a lover's heart during separation, contemplation, or annihilation unto the lover. The point where the lover becomes the beloved. Sometimes it also means nostalgia for a love forever gone, a love that never was, and love that remains after death."
Other tales, like "Resurrection Point," reflect Malik's medical background, with its concise, detached descriptions of the corpse of a boy who died under torture, a Christian boy who's denied burial in a Muslim cemetery. Here the Muslim protagonist's healing gift is turned to darker purposes, but again with the implication that something better might be born of it. "The Fortune of Sparrows" recounts the possible fate of unwed, widowed, or unmarriageable women, its ominous refrain hinting what befalls many of them: "May you stay safe from the stove, the stove, the stove!" "Dead Lovers on Each Blade Hung" has echoes of Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique stories in its depiction of a lost city and legends of a serpentine woman and Cobra Stones imbued with malicious power, though a contemporary middle-aged man's love for his lost child bride imbues it with a deeper, disturbing melancholy.
A woman narrates "In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro," in which a group of boy cadets threatened by militant strikes take shelter in another ancient city. Once more, Malik yokes a sense of queasy moral ambivalence to the supernatural doings, as the woman's own dark past is gradually revealed, along with a land's ancient history of blood and penitence and renewal.
"You use your gift to heal others, you hear me?" urges the narrator's mother in "Resurrection Points." "Don't get consumed by anger or hatred or sides. There are no sides. Only love and not-love." In this spectacular collection, Usman Malik clearly demonstrates what side he's on, reminding us that even in this darkest of times, one always has a choice between love and not-love.
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