Uprooted

red forestThe words ‘once upon a time’ have always held a note of unparalleled promise for me. Call it the product of colonial baggage, of new-age Disney imperialism, or what you will, but there is no beginning for a story that sounds as portentous, as magical, as downright compelling as those four words. I’ve even let my fondness for them carry me through five seasons of ABC’s less than stellar show of the same name, though you could dismiss that as the result of said Disney imperialist baggage instead of any sense of fairy tale fidelity.

From this rather rambling paragraph, one might surmise that I love the phrase, and the fairy tales it usually prefaces. I also love fairy tale reworkings, my favourite collection being Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. This sort of stuff is hot right now, as Frozen, Tangled and other such female-power centric tales would testify, and Naomi Novik’s Uprooted falls into its adultified (therefore, slightly more true-to-‘original’) genre.

A book built using elements of Polish folklore and fairytales, Uprooted tells the story of Agnieszka, a seemingly simple village girl, and her drive to protect her friend, Kasia. The vally in which Agnieszka’s village is situated also harbours the corrupt and dangerous Wood, a place where, like the classic forest in many fairytales, something sinister resides, from whence issue monsters and nightmares. Those who venture into the Wood, or are taken into it, seldom return, and when they do, they are changed horrifically by some malignant power deep in its heart.

The valley is watched over by a wizard only known to the villagers as ‘the Dragon’, a distant, forbidding figure who seldom intrudes into their lives, except at the time of the Choosing. Every ten years, the Dragon selects one girl around the age of 17, whom he takes into his tower for ten years. What he does with them, the villagers aren’t sure, but after they emerge, they never stay at home, moving out of the valley and into the wider world. Agnieszka dreads the ‘taking’, not because she thinks she will become the dragon’s new ‘girl’, but she fears sundering from her closest friend, Kasia, who is ‘special’ and therefore, expected to be taken into the mysterious tower. Her world is turned grimly upside down when instead of Kasia, she is chosen and taken to the Dragon’s tower. Agnieszka must put her time in the Dragon’s tower to use when later, Kasia is taken into the Wood, forcing her to venture under its eerie boughs.

uprooted-naomi-novik-book-review-ya-fantasyIn a book that spins the familiar tropes of Beauty and the Beast, placing them amid the grim darkness of a forest, Novik weaves a totally unpredictable and thoroughly enjoyable tale. There are proud princes, kidnapped queens, unsettling foes, fantasy monsters and stuffy wizards galore. There are also plucky village girls and surprisingly softhearted abductors—for all his pretensions otherwise, that is exactly what the ‘Dragon’ is regarded as in the villages—and of course, at its heart, a story of friendship. Agnieszka’s motives in the book, at least at the start, are largely driven by concern for Kasia, and there seems to be little she won’t do in order to save her friend.

The language of the book is simple, compelling, so much like a fairytale in one of those large, gilded collections of The Brothers Grimm. Novik’s world is painted with large brushstrokes, but her words manage to evoke detailed pictures in the mind of the reader. She refuses to lose herself in the lacework and flowery descriptions that dog many other fantasy writers, sticking to the simple, steady voice of the narrator. Like Agniezska herself, the girl’s voice (which guides readers through the book) is forthright, blunt more often than not, making no pretence at something she is not. For instance, here, in a few simple sentences, Novik conjures up for us the sheer menace of the Wood:

But there was something watching. I felt it more and more with every step the deeper I went into the Wood, a weight laid heavily across my shoulders like an iron yoke. I had come inside half-expecting corpses hanging from every bough, wolves leaping at me from shadows. Soon I was wishing for wolves. There was something worse here….something alive, and I was trapped in an airless room with it, pressed into a small corner. There was a song in this forest too, but it was a savage song, whispering of madness and tearing and rage. I crept on, my shoulders hunched, trying to be small.

For people who enjoy fairytales and the sense of wonder they evoke, like fantasy that rips apart expectation and convention, or just want a good story to while away the summer hours, Uprooted is the book for you. There’s something so refreshing about a book that doesn’t follow the epic hero quest formula, and instead, takes you back to the randomness of the fairy story, where literally anything can happen, where atmosphere means everything, and where the good old peasant girl gets turned into a princess in a tower, and instead of languishing for a prince, uses her guts and her guile to do what she thinks is right.

Stories that Want to be Told

Everything you can imagine is real. – Pablo Picasso

 I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘growing up’, about the books that have shaped me into the person I’ve become, the person I continue to evolve into. A few months ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s much awaited The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book which was feted with much ado and reviewed graciously all around. It failed, somehow, to move me. Perhaps this was because, as I wrote earlier, I had extremely high expectations of one of my favourite writers, expectations that even Gaiman could not fulfil.

 Or perhaps it was because I had already read a book that had portrayed the transition from child to adult in a manner that very, very few could possibly hope to achieve.

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is for me what The Shadow of the Wind was to Daniel in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s magnificent novel (of the same name). It is the secret book that found me in the midst of a hundred fellows, a thousand fellows. It was drawn from the shelf with a vague curiosity, a sort of purposeless browsing that I no longer have the time or the inclination to indulge. It found me, I think, in some strange, personal way, and it affected me profoundly, continues to affect me, upon every reading.

 The story begins, as all good stories ‘should’, ‘Once upon a time’. A young boy named David loses his mother to a wasting illness, in spite of his best efforts via counting routines and habits to keep her in good health. His father remarries and David must welcome both Rose and her new baby, Georgie, into the family. To make matters worse, England teeters on the brink of World War II, and David’s father is forced to move the family to Rose’s old family home on the outskirts of London, far from all the boy has known. Unable to cope with his grief and overwhelming resentment of Rose and Georgie, David turns to the thing he and his mother both loved: fairy tales. The books containing these stories have begun to whisper to David, and in his dreams he sees a strange, capering figure, with a face like a half-moon and a crooked hat who says with a cryptic, twisted smile ‘All hail the new king.’

 The story takes the track well-worn by generations of child-explorers: like Alice, David disappears into a strange wonderland, a pastiche of the fairytales he has grown up hearing and reading, lured thither by his dead mother’s voice. This world is no happily-ever-after vale, though, the shadows of war, disease and nightmare lying heavy upon it. David knows he cannot stay here, but the only way to get back is to make his way to the Old King, who rules weakly from his castle in the east. The King possesses a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things, which may be able to get David home. David must, of course, pass through a set of trials to get there and meets friends and enemies of varying abilities and dangers on his way, including a helpful Woodsman, communist dwarves, a murderous huntress, a beautiful, wandering knight in search of a Dark Tower and the sinister and all-powerful Crooked Man.

 In my short lifetime of reading, I have yet to come across a book that tells the story of discarding childhood in as beautiful, simple or affecting a manner. Connolly pieces together the golden threads of childhood fairytale favourites with the half-remembered and still-dreaded nightmares of things under the bed, waiting in the shadows, half-glimpsed in the faces of strangers. The sheen he gives to old tales is startling, whether it be his rewriting of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, each more macabre and Carter-esque than the sanitized versions most of us postcolonial brats are exposed to. In addition to this, when he enters this new world, David brings with him his own nightmares and the filth of his own world, its wars and troubles—he must face them down in this story, or not go back at all.

 I think, I think that Connolly and Gaiman are trying to tell the same story in their own ways. How do you deal with grief, loneliness and confusion as a child, how do you make that journey into adulthood and still retain a veneer of innocence and the ability to wonder? If your tale is just a plot woven by the Crooked Man for his own ends, if reality can be shredded away by the vicious talons of varmints, where is the stability, the meaning, the happily-ever-afters and heroics we dreamed of in stories of yore?

 Gaiman’s prose, while elegant as ever, did not move me, didn’t convince me in the same manner Connolly’s did. Perhaps that was because I came to Connolly with an open mind, and read him at a time when I myself was ‘growing up’. I could identify with David more than with the unnamed narrator in Ocean, I could see echoes of the stories I knew and loved in his own adventures. Gaiman attempts to create a new mythology for his world; Connolly rests his hero’s adventures on the backs of tried and tested figures and plots, and somehow makes them seem new.

 Perhaps that, really, is where the magic lies. As I grow older, I find myself turning more and more to the kind of stories my mother tried to wean me off of. ‘You can’t always read these fantasy and fairy tale things,’ she told me on my fifth re-read of The Lord of the Rings. ‘You have to read other books some day.’

 And yet, despite my best efforts, I find myself coming back to these, to the stories where a plucky hero passes through great and otherworldly trials to find himself rest and reward at the close. These stories remind that though ‘life is filled with great grief’ there is also ‘great happiness’. That though there are Beasts and Crooked Men in their underground tunnels, waiting to foster the evil that dwells inside you, with the right attitude you can battle them away, find allies in unlikely places and reserves of courage where you never thought to look before.

 I think Connolly manages to do what few writers apart from Lewis Carroll have done: take a child’s darkest dreams and craft with them a road to adulthood. David changes in the course of the story, as do his readers. And yet …

 ‘I came back,’ said David, and the Woodsman smiled.

 ‘Most people do, in the end.’

 Truer and more encouraging words were never spoken.