Thursday, April 21, 2011


I've tried more than once to get my mother, a big fan of young adult fiction, to read the short stories of Australian writer Margo Lanagan.  Every time she makes a dutiful effort and reports that what she read didn't do anything for her.  I know I ought to accept this and move on, but instead I bide my time and wait to try again.  Now that I've read Lanagan's marvelous new collection Yellowcake, I think it's time to launch another broadside.

I can't exactly blame my mom for not recognizing Lanagan's prodigious talent on first reading.  After all, I didn't myself.  My first exposure to Lanagan was in the copy of Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 20 that introduced me to so many great writers.  There were two Lanagan stories in that volume, two opportunities to be dazzled by her radiant imagination and evocative style and I failed both times.  I couldn't see the point of "A Pig's Whisper," a very dark piece about children lost in the woods, or "Winkie," a creepy reworking of a famous nursery rhyme.  It was only chance that led me to check Lanagan's collection White Time out of the library a while later.  I was still ambivalent after reading that one (oh, the shame), but curious enough to check out her later collections Black Juice and Red Spikes.  By the time I'd finished them, I was hooked.

There is, I'll admit, something challenging about beginning a Margo Lanagan story.  Her prose, while gorgeous, is often written in an idiom whose rhythms were once unfamiliar to me, whether because it's her own personal touch or common to Australian speech or fiction (of which I haven't read nearly enough).  The worlds in which her characters live are similar to our own in some ways yet bewilderingly different in others, and the differences aren't always immediately obvious.  You have to read on to learn more about these behaviors, customs, and desires, commonplace to her characters yet strange and wonderful to readers.

Yellowcake includes a brief "Where the stories started" section that does what it says on the tin.  But the mind of a great writer is a mysterious thing, and even knowledge of the sources of her stories can't explain the darkly marvelous ideas that run through Lanagan's work.  Many of her stories are inspired by classic fairy tales or other myth-- "The Golden Shroud" is a retelling of Rapunzel with a twist that's clever yet so simple I'm amazed no one has used it before, and "Ferryman" begins with the figure of Charon-- but others bring magic into the contemporary world, or into fictional lands no one else could have come up with.  "An Honest Day's Work," for example, might be compared to one or two classic works of fantasy fiction, but the particular twist that's placed on the basic concept is pure Lanagan.

For all her imagination, though, Lanagan's great virtue is her deft, sympathetic rendering of her characters, who are often young adults faced with grown-up terrors and responsibilities.  The protagonist of "Into the Clouds on High" is a boy forced to mature quickly because of his mother's strange condition, which may be a blessing, a curse, or both, and offers a poignant metaphor for the grieving process.  These stories may be accessible to young adults, but they're not light-hearted or patronizing, and while most are optimistic there are no easy answers on offer.  "Heads," an especially dark post-apocalyptic story, and my personal favorite in the collection, deals movingly with the ways in which children cope with sudden change and the collapse of expected order.  Lanagan's young heroes face all the darkness the world has to offer, which makes their survival all the more real and impressive.

And, on top of all that, there is her prose.  Longtime readers of this blog may have noticed that I often struggle to capture what makes a writer's style work, and post long quotes as a way of covering up this deficiency.  As I read a book, I usually keep an eye out for especially impressive or representative passages.  With Yellowcake, though, there were so many passages that seemed perfect that I had trouble selecting one.  Flipping through the book now, I suppose this section from "A Fine Magic" will do as well as any:
All is beautiful and wonderful, warm and alive while the carousel gathers speed.  Everywhere they look something catches the eye: the deft paintwork that makes that cherub look so cunning, the glitter of eagle feathers as the lights pass over, the way the giraffe runs beside them, clumsy and elegant at the same time, the lozenges of trompe-l'oeil that offer whole worlds in a glance, brine-plashy seascapes, folly-bedecked parks, city squares thronged with characters and statuary, alpine vistas where one might as easily spring up into the sky as tumble to the crags below.
Really, though, the effect of her prose depends on extended reading, which I would encourage any fan of inventive, resonant fantasy and horror to undertake, regardless of your age or general attitude to YA fiction.  How much do I admire Margo Lanagan?  When I heard that Yellowcake had been published in Australia, and that it would be a while before it was published here in the US, I immediately ordered an imported copy direct from the publisher, at 2-3 times the price I would have paid had I been content to wait.  And the thing is, having finished the book, I can say without hesitation that it was worth every penny.

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