Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Through The Gateway Together

Cruel Beauty
Rosamund Hodge

I really want to skip the review and go straight on to "buy this and give it to a young woman in your life, or to a film director who will swear not to make a mess of it,"  but I did promise myself to make a careful appraisal, for my own benefit, if no-one else's.

It is a beautifully envisioned novel - the colour language is rich but skilfully applied so that the events bloom in the mind.

On the first reading I found it difficult to get the background properly under my belt; to pick up and absorb the clues necessary for unlocking events as they proceeded.  There's much to take in - the symbolism of the names, the Resurgandi, the predicament of Arcadia, the parchment sky, the Hermetic Rules, the intricacies of the relationships of the father, the aunt, the sisters, the swains.  It's all good, great in fact, but this slow reader found it difficult to take in, straight off.  I wondered if Rosamund (sorry, to say "Hodge" sounds discourteous to me) was overtly working for the Greek dramatic unities, and wanted at all costs to avoid taking the novel out of the single stream of Nyx's narrative voice.  I applaud that choice, but it isn't the easiest way to deliver a lot of information, not to someone as mentally slow as me.

I wonder how young readers read, these days.  I don't at present know any female teen readers to question, but if I did, I'd ask - do you stop and google stuff, or are you content to let unexplained details ride for the sake of a good read?  I wonder how much difference it would have made, had I googled "Nyx Triskelion" and found out the real world derivations, instead of making the incorrect leap that "Nyx" was the Latin "nix" and that "triskelion"had to do with "triskaideka" - "Snow Thirteen" carries a somewhat different set of overtones  those intended.   It goes to show that my portion of the cultural patrimony is weird and patchy ("Hine-nui-i-te-po" I would have grasped without a blink), and that an author can't rely on readers not to be lazy.

Rosamund does a great job of depicting Nyx's searing regret for her poisoned family relations and her own part in them.  I can't admire enough how she has created a flawed character with whom one can't help sympathizing, but with whom one is never tempted to identify.  A teenage - or any other - reader stands to benefit by Nyx's sturdily applied self-knowledge.  I know I, long gone fifty, pondered the relations between myself and my sisters in the lens of Nyx and Astraia.   Still, Nyx doesn't set ones' teeth on edge, unlike, say, Becky Sharp.

The story arc is a beautifully envisioned story of reunification and reintegration, one that works so much the better because Nyx herself puts no great stock in her own predicament - so her eventual redemption is all the more satisfying because it never predominated in the story - it's not a book where teenagerish self-absorption will get any purchase.  Nyx knows, and we know, that there are more important matters in play.  

The book's earlier sensual passages, delivered in Nyx's sarcastic, funny, bitter voice,  freight the arranged marriage situation with realistic enraged embarrassment, what with Aunt Telomache's tutoring and "a platter for my husband's delectation."  I'm not sure what effect these passages would work in the mind of a young reader.  They might frighten a young girl temporarily towards shame-faced modesty; they would certainly engender sympathy for women who contract arranged marriages.  Where the book came into its own was its depiction of married intimacy; the  relations emotional and physical are indicated without a trace of coyness or lasciviousness; neither innocence nor experience would find itself insulted by the prose. I'd give it without any hesitation to any girl who has already encountered, say, Shakespeare's comedies. 

What I loved in the book most of all, apart from the gorgeous descriptions of the environment, was the careful, beautifully crafted heritage of myth, folk-tale and legend constructed for Arcadia.  If you've ever wondered about etymologies of words and derivations of nursery rhymes, if you've ever wondered what ancient truths and silly sooths might lie behind folk-tales and myths, this story will truly delight you, and you'll come back to it more than once. 

On that note, I made a strange confusion for myself on my first reading.  I was reading through a haze of depression, and in desperate need of a new pair of glasses, so I mistook italic "h" for italic "b" on the end of the song lines.  Thus, I read, "We will sing you nine, ob! The night will snuff them out, ob!  Dead in all the darkness, ob!  We will eat them all, ob!"  and so on.  To my addled and language-crazed brain, I could only interpret this as the German conditional "ob" - "if/whether (or not)"  - a sort of Schroedinger's conditional - you don't know until you look.  Given the alternate realities at the end of the book, this silliness made a sort of mad sense, and still does. 

Enough of my confusions and misapprehensions - if this visual malapropism were the worst of my personal comedy of errors, I'd be well-pleased.  Life has dealt me some eye-openers, just lately, and I'm still reeling.

But do go and buy this book, and give it to a girl you know, or a movie director, or a musician who might be inspired to write some songs about it, or a painter, who might be inspired to a graphic novel of it.  It's great. 


Otepoti said...

Does any-one want to talk spoilers in the comments? I'd have liked the relationship with the father developed a bit more, just to round his character. I know we're seeing things through Nyx's jaundiced eye to start off with, but I'd've like to have seen a bit more of his history and point of view. Same with poor Telomache. That's not to say I didn't appreciate the family healing that's taking place at the end, though.

More village life, too, and a longer intro to Birgit, Nanny-Anna and Tom-Alone, even if that came at the expense of a bit less house description. That would be a regrettable loss, though, because I haven't enjoyed description of indoor space so much since I read C.S Lewis' description of his own childhood, "I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books," and sent Lucy up the stairs in the magician's house.

So perhaps it's ungrateful of me to want to re-balance the book slightly, in favour of more explication, but I am, alas, one of those readers who needs to be hit over the head with important detail.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Sorry I'm so late to responding. I raced through the novel so quickly, that I felt too fuzzy to really have a good conversation about it. But I just re-read it last night and am on steadier footing now.

I think the lack of the kind of explication you are wanting is a result of the choice to have a first person narrator. We can't get out of Nyx's head and into Leonides' or Telomache's. Though I agree that I'd like those relationships expounded on. I love the literary references to Tam-Lin
and how she adapts that material and blends it with Eros and Psyche and Beauty and the Beast, but I agree I'd like to know more about the "hedge gods" and have a fuller explanation within the text of the Tom-Alone story rather than relying quite so much on the literary allusion.

I like your citation of the Lewis quote. Delightful.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

This comment is going to be really spoilery because I'm trying to work my way back through the story from the end to the beginning, reconstructing in my mind how it all happened.

It strikes me that both Nyx and Lux inherit a a task that they must perform, though they do not want to do so. Inherited as a result of someone else’s bargain made with the Kindly Ones/The Gentle Lord. As a result of the first prince’s bargain and of Leonides’ bargain, both of them end up trapped in the box with demons.

It’s tempting to read this as a sort of parable/allegory about the Fall and original sin and the Christian life. We have unpleasant tasks to perform which are only unpleasant because of concupiscence. We have to carry the cross and carry it not only for ourselves but to carry other people’s crosses as well, which means to enter into someone else’s suffering.

I love that redemption in the novel comes when Nyx forgets her resentment and her entire self and wants only to atone for her abandonment of Lux and to keep her vow to him. She wants nothing more than to suffer with him so that he will not be alone in his suffering, even knowing that it will alleviate his pain not a bit.

I love the ending: "We'll both be foolish... and vicious and cruel. We will never be safe with each other.
. . .
But we'll pretend we know how to love. . . . And someday we'll learn."