The Onion Girl by Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is an author, performance (musical) artist, and a Canadian. So far as I can make out, he is best known for his Newford novels (so named because they are set primarilyin the fictional Americo-Canadian [that isn’t a word, yes] city Newford, and follow the stories of people based in that city). And no one is entirely certain what genre of fantasy the Newford novels fall into, which, for me, is like a big banner screaming “Read this person he must be good!” and so here we are. De Lint himself gives us the term “mythic fiction“, and until I read thatI had toyed with the term “folkloric urban fantasy”.

The plot? Jilly Coppercorn, artist (visual) who believes that fairies do exist is the victim of a nasty hit-and-run incident. She is broken, inside and out. And those of her friends who are magic can’t heal her, because “inside” wasn’t just a nice way of talking about her bleeding internal organs. And Jilly doesn’t seem to mind at first, because she can sleep through the pain, and brokenness, and in her sleep she can enter the dreamlands, the spirit-world: Manido-Aki.

And in the World As It Is (Jilly’s terminology, not mine), her friends – her many, many friends, both magical and Magical, worry about her, and about who might or might not be wishing to hurt her.

Jilly Coppercorn plays a small role in most of the Newford stories, I think, and is important as much for her presence as for any material contribution she might be making to the plot. I imagine that long-term readers of the Newford books must be thrilled to see her with a book all to herself, and crushed to find her so, well, crushed, in mind and in body. This is my first de Lint, and every so often I put the book down simply to savour the life Jilly has built for herself, the connections and the people she has built through the simple elegance of being a genuinely caring person (I say that without malice). From other reviews I gather that the theme of child abuse is one that de Lint examines frequently in the Newford novels – I suppose it is no surprise that the woman who might be Newford’s heart is deeply concerned with it, from within and without.

There are three main points of view in the novel, all seen via first-person narrative. Jilly who is human but not mundane gets one (her narrative is interspersed with third-person accounts from her closest friends). Joe, who is not entirely unhuman, gets the second. The third goes to the initially-mysterious and seemingly very human Raylene. An interesting dyamic is set up here, I think. Jilly (who is in her late thirties? Very early forties?) is bound to a hospital bed by her injuries, and when she moves to the dreamlands spends most of her time in particular locales, speaking with particular people. Joe can cross between the World As It Is and the dreamlands, and spends a lot of his time there searching for something or the other. Raylene’s narrative covers the most amount of time (from her teens to her mid-to-late-thirties), the most amount of geographical, economic and social movement, the most amount of violence (that need or needn’t be focussed around her). I suppose I’d say that Jilly is the heart of the novel (of Newford? I need to read all the other books), Joe is its intelligence and Raylene provides its energy.

The novel moves steadily, following Raylene’s adult life and Jilly’s recovery from the accident. The connection between Jilly and Raylene (and thus their plotlines) is clear early on, and I think Joe is a gently leashed deux ex machina who’s there not to save everyone at the last moment but to, well, move the plot along until Jilly finds a way to resolve her own issues. The pacing is sure and steady, and the book rewards rereads very nicely.

What I like most about the novel is that it is not about victimisation. The people in Newford recognise that there are victims, that some of them were victims. But our protagonists are not here to agonise but rather to be, to do. There is a recognition in the novel that Shit Happens, and that it is possible, sometimes, if you’re lucky enough to be given a helping hand, to move past that. There’s no shrinking from truths, harsh or otherwise. You don’t get a Get Out Of Jail Free, ‘Cos You Were A Victim And That Means You Can Do What You Want card (because the printing costs would be too high, and the print would have to be rather small to fit on the card, most likely).

The novel fulfills Bechdel’s Rule, by the way. This is not very hard, since more than half the characters with dialogue are women, but it is still very nice. There is a lovely ironic nod to all the Feisty!woman Stereotypes out there. No one is made pregnant to emphasise her sexuality, and sex in and of itself isn’t the be all and end all of any of the plot threads. All the women (and all the men) are individualised people, without waving the banners of No One Is Like Me. (I wonder how much of this is because they’ve appeared in other Newford novels and thus have been honed over the years.) An interesting point is being made in the dreamlands by the end of the novel, by the way, about power – to discipline, to punish, to regulate and balance – and what it can be when it is in the hands of men, and what it is instead in the hands of women. A part of me wishes that this particular issue had been played out in Newford, because to binarise gender even in a spirit world sets a rather disappointing standard.

Magic and folklore play so intrinsic a part to Jilly, Raylene’s and Joe’s world, and for Jilly and Raylene that magic is something familiar but still foreign. The novel doesn’t make it all-too-clear to me how separate, or how conjoined, magic, or magical feeling, is to their personalities. (A plot point hinges on this, and I am not sure how I feel about it since I keep worrying away at this one detail.) There’s a sidekick character for Raylene with the improbably name of Pinky, and I think that her lack of voice in the text is a problematic absence, since it does in fact raise the possibility of a Victims Get The Get Out of Jail Free card. And it is also problematic that two of the three people (the two “positive” characters as compared to the third) who survive sexual abuse cannot enter into intimate sexual-romantic relationships. What’s up with that? (Is it in another book?)

What’s the novel about? I’d say: It’s about surviving child abuse, and the ways in which one might do that. It’s about power – what you can do with it, what you should and more importantly, should not do with it. It’s about what power means in the hands of men, and of women. It’s about retribution, too, and it’s fairly clear on the rights and wrongs of that one. It’s about the difference between responsibility and culpability, and the difficulty of finding redemption… It’s about music, and art, and how we are never just one person.

The Onion Girl takes an in-depth look at Jilly Coppercorn, her past and her current recovery; it fleshes out Newford and the dreamlands for us (and I suspect has set the stage for either very interesting or very boring changes in the dreamlands for future books). It weaves together The World As We Know It and The World Our Imaginations Wish Were so tightly you cannot truly say where one begins and the other ends. It’s a steady delight of a novel, and I recommend you go out there and get your hands on it right now.


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