Sunday, 12 June 2016

Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia McKillip


Patricia McKillip is an author I have never read before, and I am delighted to have made an acquaintance with her work. I've certainly heard of her, but she didn't cross any of my lists until io9 included her on a list of best books of the year back in 2012. Now that I've read Wonders of the Invisible World, I am interested to see what else she has to offer.

These are short stories, often with a fairy tale tinge, or a historical one. Most of the protagonists are women, with a few exceptions. What struck me the most is how many of these stories were, in different ways, about women on the (in the?) margins. Being a woman in the world is subtly included in much of what I read here.

There is a woman by the edge of a forest who keep seeing the edges of stories we know, watching from the house she's cleaning as Elaine floats by or the Wild Hunt passes. There are women almost swept away by deer in human form, and regret not going. There are selkies who wash up on a shore not at all like what they were expecting. There are women artists in the early 20th century making compromises for studio time and art shows. There are women trying to find magic in a city that tells them they have none. 

There are also a few stories about men. The one about the man who stole something from fairyland and would do anything to get it back. Or the young mam who makes his way into a substantially different (from the women's point of view) story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. (Has anyone else seen the Peter Weller movie of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, other than me?)

There are also stories of being on the margins because you're torn between worlds, between denying heritage or claiming heritage or saying fuck heritage and going out to find power yourself. 

They're beautifully written, and most have a deliberately fairy tale feel, but then within that McKillip is exploring themes of belonging, of being an outsider, with a feeling that outsiders see more, perceive more, and are more able to make their own choices whether to belong or to tell everything they are told to go to hell. 

I'm not sure what else to say - I find it hard to review short story collections because each individual story is over before I have time to think about it thoroughly. It helps when they hang together on a theme as these so obviously do.

As we all know, I love fantasy based on fairy tales, and these in large part, count, although as many are about creatures of folklore - will-o'-the-wisps, and kelpies. Much of it has to be with being on the water, or in the liminal space between water and air, shore and sea. It's that space of possibility McKillip explores to great effect.

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