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The Onion Girl

by Charles de Lint

(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.)

cover scan

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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