Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein

It will probably come to no surprise to anyone that I love books that capture the rhythm and soul of a fairy tale. They're one of my favourite things to read, when it's done well. It's hard to think of a book topping, or even coming close to, Catherynne Valente's Deathless in that regard. But even if it's not that mindblowingly good, it's a genre I have a deep affection for.

When it comes to The Uncertain Places, it doesn't quite have the rhythm of a fairy tale, but it does do extremely interesting and provocative things with fairy tale ideas and imagery. It's a strong contender in this mini-genre, for several reasons. Firstly, Goldstein has a real feel for the capricious, and her fairies are not warm, fuzzy, or beautiful. They are other, and stay other, and the humans who walk in their world are not always smarter or more cunning than creatures who have been alive for centuries, and had all their bargains broken before. These fairies learned from their mistakes. For the most part.

In this book, a young man named Will falls in love with Livvy, the middle daughter in a strange old family filled with grace and luck. They live in an old house with strange juxtapositions of design, off the proceeds of a winery. Turns out, they're blessed with fairy luck, but at a cost. In every generation, one young woman will fall asleep for seven years and fight with and for the fairies.

Can we guess which daughter falls asleep? Will suddenly has a very pressing need to figure out how to break fairy bargains, but learns that there are fewer rules in fairyland than the stories assure us there are. Some of the stories still work, while others...well, let's just say that the fairies have found workarounds.

That's all well and good, but if that were all the book was, it would be a stirring adventure yarn about winning back fair lady. It's more though, as it becomes a meditation on the bargain itself, and the ethics of it. Would you bargain away seven years of a family members life for comfort? Will is outraged at the very idea.

But then it becomes more complicated. What if that luck covered safety as well? What if it meant you knew, knew, that no one you loved would be killed or hurt in an accident? Or develop cancer? If it would give you the means to keep those you loved safe and whole and with you? Would it be ethical then? What if they knew it was coming? 

This gets twistier and more difficult as it goes, and hit me hard. My husband and I have been struggling with financial instability for six years, as I've worked away on my dissertation, and he's had to deal with ever-more precarious temp work that pays less than it used to. Of course I would never trade away years of my life, or his, but the overall question of, if magic offered an answer to all these stresses and worries, what would you give up? It's a particularly poignant dilemma.

Not to mention the knowledge that those you love would be safe. This is a book that challenges, even as it weaves, embroiling the characters and readers in circumstances where, because there is magic, there are possibilities that we might be happier not knowing exist. Because if we could do something about them...would we?

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