Monday, October 1, 2012

Reading Notes: Only Ever Always

I came across this beautiful book by Melbourne author Penni Russon at the Emerging Writers Festival in May, where Penni was part of a panel on writer's groups. (Other wonderful discoveries from the Festival were Romy Ash's Floundering, Sydney Smith's The Lost Woman, and the Festival's own book, The Emering Writer).

I have a king-sized weakness for well-written children's and YA fantasy / speculative fiction. Some of my favourite titles of all time fall into this category - books I come back to over and over, and glean something new from on each reading. So Russon's book, located within this rich and magical tradition, interested me from the get-go.

The premise of the book is at once deceptively simple and fascinatingly layered, much in the way that one's reflection in a mirror is both self and not-self. I use the mirror imagery purposefully, as it's key to this story. Told from the perspectives of two parallel protagonists, Claire and Clara, it plays around with ideas of identity, suffering, and redemption in two very different, but linked, alternate worlds.

Claire lives in what appears to be the "real" world as we currently understand it - a quiet only child of loving parents, her life is turned upside down by a family tragedy. Clara, who might be read as her alter ego in the alternate world (but perhaps not ... moe on that below) lives in a dystopian world of decay, rot and struggle for existence, where structures are weak, houses are crumbled shells, food is a constant concern, medicine is scarce and criminal gangs rule. Clara has no parents, but has a friend / elder brother-figure protector, Andrew, who she lives with and loves fiercely.

Claire and Clara are each confronted with a crisis of overwhelming proportions, and the exigencies of their troubles lets Clara pass briefly through the veil from one world to the next, encountering Claire, her doppelganger, there. Ultimately, Claire is able to reverse the journey and enter Clara's savage world when Clara's need calls her.

Given that basic plot, you might expect that this is primarily a hero story, or a quest story, but it isn't at all. What it is, I think, is a dream story - the old trope of wisdom revealed in dreams seems particularly strong in this book. Russon is never explicit about which girl is "real" and which the dreamed / imagined alternate (or, indeed, if both are real, and represent the end of different forks in the road of human history). It's possible to conceptualise Clara as future-Claire, living in a decayed world, or as a manifestation of Claire's longings, fears and desires; just as readily, you could position Claire as alterna-Clara, what she would have been like in her existence had been less of a constant struggle.

What's really interesting is the ways in which Russon counters the natural bias of the reader to treat Claire, and her recognisable world, as the real one, and Clara as the dream. While Clara talks directly to us, in vivid dialect, Claire's story is written in the second person, invoking a feeling of distance and observation rather than connection. Clara leaps from the page, in all her fiery, passionate commitment, while Claire, sad, lonely little Claire, remains muted, muffled, detatched. Claire may live in a world that we recognise, but it's Clara whose personality comes through as the positive force, the energy of which Claire is just a reflection in the glass.

This is a beautiful book - written with a great deal of lyrical power, it's pleasurable to read, to hear in your head. It's a sad book, and doesn't take the easy road with resolving its characters' crises. It's a thought-provoking book, that lingers with you long after it's completed. I read it aloud to my 9 year old once I'd finished it, and she was intrigued, although I think some of the symbolism was a little beyond her. I'd say it would be ideal for readers at the level of, for instance, The Dark is Rising or A Wrinkle in Time and above. And it will handsomely repay the adult fantasy reader, too.

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