The Onion Girl
(Gollancz, £10.99, 508 pages, trade paperback; ISBN 0-575-07272-5.
Also available in hardback priced £17.99, published 15 August 2002.
Gollancz, £6.99, 506 pages, mass market paperback, this edition published
25 March 2004.)
At the beginning of this novel Charles de Lint quotes from G.K. Chesterton:
'They (fairy tales) make rivers run with wine only to make us remember,
for one wild moment, that they run with water.' Put another way, fantasy
does not so much offer us a way of escape from the real world as help
us to see it in a new way. Once again, in this latest Newford novel,
Charles de Lint has succeeded in doing just that.
Newford is an almost archetypal North American city and the setting
of many of de Lint's stories. As a distillation of modern urban life
Newford is utterly convincing. It is an exciting place with a strong
artistic community and a vibrant night-life. But it can also be a harsh
and dangerous place for those who find themselves on the margins of
society. And the margins are precisely where most of the Newford stories
are set. In Newford the margins may be dangerous but they can also be
bridges between this world (the world as it is) and a magical place
(variously known as the Otherworld, the Dreamlands and the Spiritworld).
Readers already familiar with Newford will be delighted to learn that
the central character, the onion girl of the title, is none other than
Jilly Coppercorn. Since her first appearance in the short story 'Uncle
Dobbin's Parrot Fair', she has been a regular feature of the Newford
stories. Jilly is one of a band of 'small, fierce women' at the heart
of Newford's artistic community. For years she has longed to be able
to visit the Otherworld in her dreams, like her friend Sophie. Untidy,
dreamy and an enthusiastic believer in faery, Jilly has always been
presented as the one who is there when someone is in need of help. Now
it is her turn to need the support of her friends. The book begins with
her being the victim of a hit-and-run which leaves her paralysed and
unable to paint. It seems small compensation that as a result of the
accident she can now enter the Otherworld whenever she falls asleep.
Shortly after Jilly's accident a newcomer arrives in Newford. Raylene
Carter is almost a negative image of Jilly. She and Jilly share the
experience of having been sexually abused as children. But there the
resemblance ends. Jilly ran away from home and ended up on the streets
of Newford. The story of how she was helped off the streets and into
her career as a successful artist is told in 'In the House of My Enemy'
-- a short story originally published in 1993, which de Lint has inserted
into this novel. Raylene learned to fight back and discovered that violence
could help her achieve her goals. By the time she arrives in Newford
she is a hustler and small-time crook. The idea of Raylene as the dark
counterpart to Jilly extends into the Otherworld. Raylene, too, can
cross over in her sleep. But, while in the Otherworld, she takes a form
that allows her complete freedom to express her violence. It is a tribute
to the strength of de Lint's characterization that Raylene comes across
as genuinely sympathetic rather than evil or pitiful. For fans of Jilly
that sympathy is likely to be tinged with unease as they gradually realize
that Raylene is the sister she left behind when she ran away from home
and that Raylene is in Newford to punish Jilly for abandoning her.
The viewpoint of Joe Crazy Dog provides a third vital narrative strand.
Readers of other Newford novels will remember him particularly from
Trader where he acts as the spirit guide for a man who finds
himself trapped in someone else's body. Once more he is called upon
to act as a guide. This time, Jilly's friends look to him to help her
find her way back from the Otherworld. He is the natural choice for
this because, although he appears human in this world, he is one of
the People -- shape-shifters who seem equally at home in both realms.
Joe it is who makes Jilly realize that in order to deal with the effects
of her accident she must confront the dark episodes in her past that
she has so effectively suppressed. She must face her shadow, in the
person of Raylene, if she is to achieve wholeness.
Spirit guides; confronting your shadow; seeking inner healing -- this
storyline could so easily have become a piece of New Age kitsch. We
have de Lint's integrity as a storyteller to thank for the fact that
it hasn't. He is too honest a writer to shrink from the cost to Jilly
and Raylene. In the end, Jilly has to choose between the Otherworld
she has desired for so long and the world as it is, where she is a cripple
unable to earn a living. And, though she does not realize it, the possibility
of Raylene's redemption also hangs upon that choice.
In addition to the three major viewpoint characters, de Lint has woven
together narrative strands from a number of secondary viewpoints (mostly
Jilly's friends). The result is a self-assured, intricate tapestry from
which the reader gradually acquires a detailed understanding of Jilly
and her personal history. This is not a fantasy novel for action fans,
but anyone who appreciates vivid description and carefully crafted character
development will find it a rewarding read.
Review by Lawrence Osborn.
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