“The past scampers like an alley cat through the present, leaving the paw prints of memories scattered like helter-skelter—here ink is smeared on a page, there lies an old photograph with a chewed corner, elsewhere still, a nest has been made of old newspapers, headlines running one into the other to make strange declarations. There is no order to what we recall, the wheel of time follows no straight line as it turns in our heads. In the dark attics of our minds, all times mingle, sometimes literally.”The Onion Girl opens with famous Newford fairy painter Jilly Coppercorn waking up from a comma. She’s suffered a terrible hit-and-run accident that left her almost completely paralyzed, and she soon learns that her recovery, if it is to happen, will depend on her ability to deal with past hurts. The one positive consequence of Jilly’s accident was the fact that it gave her the ability to travel to the Dreamlands in her sleep. In the Dreamlands, she meets several mythological creatures, and her journey towards healing and forgiveness begins. Jilly’s story is alternated with Raylene Carter’s. Like Jilly, Raylene had a difficult childhood, being repeatedly raped by her older brother while her family turned a blind eye. But along the way her life ended up becoming completely different from Jilly’s. How Raylene’s story fits into the plot is something that is soon revealed as the book advances.
I have to confess that I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as I thought I would. And it’s my own fault, really. Quixotic had warned her readers that Dreams Underfoot would be the best introduction to the Newford series. And the author of this Amazon list describes The Onion Gril as “probably the greatest Newford book, and absolutely the least newbie friendly”. Why didn’t I listen? Well, the circumstances are to blame. I found a copy of this book for only 50p at a library sale back in Nottingham. After Waifs and Strays I really wanted to read more De Lint, and since I already owned a copy of The Onion Girl, I couldn’t resist.
My problem was not that the story didn’t make sense. The story’s pretty much self-contained, and I could perfectly understand everything that was happening. But there’s a very large cast of characters, and, like every writer working on a series, Charles de Lint builds up on the reader’s past familiarity with them. The characters are interesting and well-rounded, and their relationships with one another are complex. And here was my main problem. I felt like I was being told about all these relationships and emotions without being able to truly see and feel them for myself. And why? Because I didn’t have access to the characters’ background stories. There were several scenes that would surely have had a greater emotional impact if I had been able to feel the ties between the characters rather than just having to believe they were there. But this was me. I have no doubt that other readers who are unfamiliar with the series will not feel out of place the way I did, and will be able to keep up with the story both intellectually and emotionally.
Now on to the good stuff. I don’t want to give you the impression that my feeling of dislocation ruined this book for me, because that really wasn’t the case. I really liked De Lint’s use of fairy tale elements and of mythology – particularly Native American mythology. I liked the concept of the Dreamlands, a place where anything is possible, a place where literary characters wander about long after their creators have disappeared, trying hard not to be forgotten, trying to continue to exist. I liked how Charles De Lint used the same concept Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (and probably others I’ve yet to discover) use in books like American Gods and Little Gods: that gods, that creatures of myth, stay around for as long as we believe in them. Our belief feeds them, and once it’s gone they cease to be.
Other than Jilly and Raylene’s point of views, we also have Joe’s (one of Jilly’s friends from Newford, and someone who has a foot in the real world and another in the Dreamlands) and that of several of Jilly’s friends. The points of view shift quite often, and this is always a dangerous choice for a writer, but Charles De Lint handled it very well, and his choice of multiple perspectives ended up really enriching the story.
The Onion Girl is full of magic, but at the same time it is a heavy and powerful book. It deals with themes such as child abuse and its many consequences, prostitution, and drug addiction. And it does so without trying to prettify anything. It also deals with the past and the hold it has on us, with choices, and to which extent what happens to us determines who we become.
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