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Musing on Books
Return of the Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner, Greenwillow, 2020, $18.99, hc.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab, Tor, 2020, $26.99, hc.
Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2020, $27, hc.
Reviewing books is fun and thinky for me. It's the attempt to funnel my reaction as a reader into a cogent opinion. Other people can love a book to death that I have failed to even finish, possibly because I've thrown it across the room; the inverse is also true.
Reading, for me, has always been tangled in emotional reactions. When I'm reading a book, what other readers think doesn't matter. What the writer intended doesn't matter, either. The act of reading is private, emotional, my responses to text built, in part, from my own personal context as a reader and as a person.
Reading requires emotional response.
And 2020 has been a disaster of a year on so many fronts I've developed a numbness in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. This numbness makes it hard for books—for words—to reach me. It's not the books that are the problem; it's that I have so little left to give to them. It's been a struggle; I have brought home many, many books, and instead of being dragged in by sentences, have found them perfect, featureless walls in which I can find no purchase. Sometimes, though, there are small cracks into which I can dig metaphorical fingers, and through which I can work my way in—but those cracks rely on a specific resonance, a sense of home. I hope, as 2020 fades and 2021 ushers in change—vaccines, sanity—that things will get better.
Return of the Thief is the sixth and final book about Eugenides. The Thief, published in 1996, was the first, and the only one that seemed—to me—to be aimed at a younger audience. My advice, when I'm in the store, is: If you liked, but did not love, The Thief, continue—you will almost certainly love the books that follow, but they require the first for both context and history. If you hated Eugenides, stop, because you won't enjoy any of the others.
I bought this book the minute it hit the shelves, and then…failed to read it. I knew it was the last book. I didn't want the Attolia stories to end, and I felt a certain anxiety about the book itself. What if I didn't love it? What if, as the crowning book, it didn't live up to the rest? Series will have high points and low points; there will always be one book we love better than the others. But this is the last one, and endings are different; they carry the weight of the rest.
For people who might have suffered the same anxieties, I will cut to the chase: I loved this book. If I opened it with a frisson of anxiety, with a "well, let's just see," it was gone by the time I hit page three; gone in a heady what exactly was the worry? This was the book I desperately needed to break my reading slump, to remind me that reading is an act of liberation.
As King of Attolia is, Return of the Thief is written entirely from the viewpoint of a new character, Pheris. Unlike the former book, this is a work written by said Pheris about the events of the High King, and of the chronicler himself.
Pheris is a child of the Susa family, but a grandchild of Erondites, the Baron who has caused Attolia nothing but trouble in his pursuit of power. Hampered, hamstrung, by prior events, Erondites proves himself to nonetheless be a power—a power who openly disdains Eugenides and his queen. Eugenides has demanded Erondites send him his heir, to be raised in Attolia's court.
Erondites therefore goes to Baron Susa's wife, his only daughter, and from her household, he takes Pheris—a boy who is very much considered the village idiot of the family, an embarrassment who should have been exposed and left to die at birth. Pheris cannot speak. He can, with great difficulty, walk, but was born with a half-lame leg and arm. He drools; he does not seem to be able to follow most instructions. He is Susa's firstborn, but hidden away in a servant's house. Given his mother's attitude, it seems clear that Pheris was allowed to live almost entirely to spite her father, Erondites.
But Erondites wishes to spite Eugenides, and this? moronic child seems the perfect child to send to the court of Attolia, as demanded.
Pheris can't speak, it's true. But there's nothing wrong with his eyes or his ears. He has been raised by an old servant, a nursemaid who has served first Erondites and then Susa, raising all of the children. And she has made absolutely clear to Pheris that his survival depends upon being seen as a witless, child-like moron; that no one must know that he is intelligent, that he could be competent.
He is dragged from his only home and sent to Attolia. There, in his first audience as Erondites's heir, he embarrasses both Erondites and Eugenides—in theory. Erondites expects Pheris will be summarily ejected, possibly executed; he doesn't care. His intent is to win this round of hostilities. And he does, in the eyes of the court. Eugenides, however, decides to keep Pheris; to keep him as an attendant.
It is as an attendant, one of those gaggle of men who follow the king everywhere, that he is privy to the unfolding of the war with the Medes, the greater continental power that intends to conquer the three small countries that form the little peninsula: Attolia, Eddis, and Sounis. Eugenides is High King; King over three Kings. He is also The Thief of Eddis, which is to say, the only follower, the only worshipper, of his god. One day, his god will look upon a different thief, and The Thief will fall. It is a fact of life.
There is very, very little magic in Turner's fantasies—but the one magic that has shown some small part of its hand is the gods. The gods exist, and sometimes they reveal themselves to their people. The sight of the gods is terrifying, always; gods are meant to be worshipped and respected—not to literally be seen and heard. Eugenides is one of the blessed; he is almost a force of nature himself, although that nature is stubbornly human. The salvation of the land over which these gods preside is this petulant, clever High King.
Sometimes the gods interfere in unpredictable ways, and Pheris, mute and lame, is one of them. He walks in Eugenides's shadow; sees Eugenides's rage; understands—as even Attolia comes to understand—that it is not the cleverness or the observation of the King that defines him, but the rage of The Thief, the rage of a man individually blessed and strengthened by his god. It is a rage that is required, but it is also a rage that is very rightly feared. And its cage, if it can be caged, is the very human, very normal connections that bind Eugenides to the very few people he chooses to love.
I understood why this was the final book in this series; it's the book that all other books have been building toward. And it touches on all of those other books, taking the threads spun in each and at last laying them out in the final tapestry. When I finished King of Attolia over a decade ago, I flipped it over and started it again, immediately, on page one. When I finished Return of the Thief, I did the same. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
On the surface of things, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a deal-with-the-devil story. Such stories end in one of two ways (or, if older, one way): The person who made the deal is eventually devoured; they go to hell because such deals should never be made. Such tales are morality plays. There are stories in which the deal is rendered null, usually by outside influences, but still: morality play.
This is not what Schwab has made of this familiar story.
When we first encounter Addie, we discover almost instantly that she is different, or that her life is different, from ours. Although she lives in New York City, and the time, 2014, is pretty close to now, it is clear that her life and ours intersect only tangentially. She wakes to a shared bed, hesitates, and then gets up and heads out of the bedroom into the kitchen, trying to decide if she should simply leave, or wait until the other occupant also wakes.
She chooses the latter, although by now she has little hope; she knows what is going to happen. The young man will wake, he will be confused, he will not recall her. She's done this many, many times. Times without number. He's fallen asleep, and all memory of who she is has been lost. He won't remember her name—but no one does. She is physically incapable of speaking that name where anyone else can hear it. She can't speak of her life, her past, her truth—not directly. The words fail to leave her mouth.
But she's an old hand at this. Toby doesn't remember her, of course he doesn't. There is the awkward embarrassment of finding a stranger in his apartment, the confusion, and the growing certainty that he must have been incredibly drunk the night before. She plays the piano, and the melody stirs something that can't quite be called memory in the man who listens, brow furrowed as he struggles to recall. It's a song they've been working on for weeks—each clearly lived in a single day at a time, the first day, for Toby. This is the only way Addie LaRue can somehow leave a mark on the world.
Adeline LaRue was born in 1691 in the village of Villon to her carpenter/wood carver father and his wife. Called Addie by that father, she was an irrepressible bundle of curiosity; a fledgling whose desire to finally take wing almost jumps off the page. At age seven, she is allowed to accompany her father to Le Mans, the town in which he sells his wares. She listens to his stories as they travel on the bench of her father's wagon, and when she reaches the town, it is startling and new and full of hope and wonder. She has always wanted to travel, to see the world, to be part of it.
She has friends in Villon. The oldest, Estele, believes in the old gods; they are not at all like the god for whom the village church has been built, and to whom Addie's parents both pray. Estele knows they listen, and sometimes, when it strikes their fancy, they will lend aid. Addie wants—as always—to know more. She is a child; she is transactional in nature. Estele tells her, but also cautions her: No matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.
It is clear, given stories and daydreams and wishes and the weight of that warning, that Addie doesn't take that advice.
She is desperate to avoid a marriage she does not want. She wants to leave Villon, to see as much of the world as she can; she does not want to be trapped in a small house with the children who inevitably follow a marriage. She's seen that fate play out. Her parents, however, have other ideas; Addie is not young anymore, being in her twenties, and neither are they.
The Darkness gives her what she prays for.
She loses everything else. On the evening her prayer is answered, her parents no longer know her; they've never been blessed with children. Her friends don't know her. There is nothing at all of Addie LaRue anywhere in their lives, in this village, in the world. Only the Darkness remembers her, and he intends to devour her soul the moment the life she has asked for is too much to bear.
In the first year, it almost is. Addie's new eternity is grim and unhappy as she begins to learn the limits of her existence, the rules that somehow bind her to this invisibility, this inability to leave a mark. Sheltered as she has been by parents and the safety of the familiar, she is now penniless, homeless, nameless. Add hungry, cold, and terrified. Addie is focused on survival. She will come to understand that there is nothing she cannot survive—but that takes time.
The Darkness is waiting. Addie is so angered by this that she finds elements of joy to throw in his face: She saw an elephant, for example. She experienced beautiful, new things she would never have experienced had she not made her deal. She offers these in defiance: She is not ready to end her existence while there are still wonders in the world, no matter how much she suffers. She will not surrender or give in while something she hates is waiting for it.
She has not, three centuries later, surrendered. She has learned how to navigate, how to find places she can stay, how to clothe herself, how to feed herself, and how to leave glimpses of herself behind: in art, in music, in things she has touched but has not made herself. And because she is human, she still hopes, still desires, someone who can remember her. It has never happened.
Theft is a way of life for Addie, who can make nothing of her own; she cannot work, for obvious reasons. When a door closes between Addie and the person she was speaking with, the person forgets instantly that she was ever there. Imagine her surprise when she steals something to read from a used bookstore, closes the door, and leaves. The store's sole clerk marches out after her in anger, demanding payment.
Addie's arrested life begins to move forward. Until now, the only person—and he is not a person—who knows her, who remembers her, is the Darkness. But on this one night, an angry bookseller makes a crack in the shell that has separated her from people in the most fundamental way.
I can't speak more to this without severe spoilers, which most people don't like. I will say that Addie is not entirely blameless, and, given her circumstances, there's much she hasn't learned—but time does change all things, even the Darkness. And Schawb's portrait of Addie is so resonant with longing, with hope and despair, twin sides of the same coin, that this messy book is also perfect.
Susanna Clarke's first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, was followed by a short story collection, and then by silence. That silence was broken by Piranesi, a book that is, on the surface, nothing at all like her first novel. For one, it is much shorter. It also lacks the cast of characters, the bustle of clashing intellects, the presence of a magic too wild and too uncontrollable to be either benign or helpful.
Piranesi is the name of one of two living occupants of a vast complex of halls; he considers himself a scientist, and his work is to map the vast glory of these halls, The House. He has journals in which he makes his notes and calculations as he traverses those halls, each of which is adorned by magnificent statues—minotaurs and satyrs, kings, queens, and beggars. He is not the only occupant; there are fifteen. Thirteen are dead, but he tends their remains, and when the waters rise, he moves them to higher halls, higher alcoves. Here, the waters do rise, but there is a pattern to their rise, and when they ebb, he finds fish and seaweed. Those are gifts from the House to Piranesi, that he not starve while he continues his life's work.
The second living occupant of The House is a man he calls The Other. The Other meets him every Tuesday to gather the information from Piranesi's life's work.
There is an isolated beauty in Piranesi's modest, spare words, and a very hushed sense of meditation; as he says: The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite. In the world that Piranesi sees—a world entirely unlike our own—is the beginning of a tale of the fantastic, but the world is closed, almost silent. The Other, however, never feels like he is part of Piranesi's world. His speech, his interactions, feel distinctly modern and, for better or worse, distinctly ours. Piranesi considers The Other his friend; the reader does not.
Into this closed world steps The Prophet. The Prophet with his strange words, his strange tone; someone who has come to the House but is not of it. Someone who uses names, who names The Other. The Prophet is the beginning of an end that Piranesi cannot yet see.
I have never read anything quite like it. If one follows the plot that begins to unwind, the noise revealed above the hush of Piranesi's life, the sequence of unfolding events become clear, but that clarity does not come easily to Piranesi. And even when it does, in the end, it is strangely removed, because Piranesi is of the House. It is his home.
There is much to say about isolation, about the interiority of the House, and even, in the end, about the ambition of people, but the beauty of the sparse words and observations that began this never quite leaves; it feels vast, endless, almost timeless. This feels nothing like Alan Garner's work—but in Garner's early work, there's something that strikes me as similar: the sense of the tangled, wild ancient things that are at the very periphery of intellectual vision; that listen, that speak, if we can sink into the hush that surrounds Piranesi and listen.
I'm not sure this book will work for everyone. I am still thinking about it, still revisiting it, still questioning it and attempting to draw conclusions that shift and move with each iteration.
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