Jun 1, 2008

The Onion Girl by Charles De Lint

“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.

Other Blog Reviews:
Honeyed Words
Booky Ooky
Rhinoa’s Ramblings
Quixotic
Reading Adventures
Books Without Any Pictures

(Got any more? Let me know and I’ll add your link to this list)

20 comments:

  1. Even though this one wasn't a 100% winner for you, you've certainly given me a good reminder to try De Lint. I've never read any of his stuff, but I've always heard him discussed very highly.

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  2. This was my first Newford book as well, and I am relieved to see that I was not the only person who felt like it was confusing. I do intend to read more.

    It kind of surprises me that there isn't a suggested reading order for this series.

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  3. I'm so confused now, lol. But I'm glad that I got this viewpoint from someone else who hasn't read much of Newford. The only Newford I've read is The Blue Girl. Everyone tells me that this is the book to start with, but from what you've said it sounds like this might be a rough one to start with...ok, maybe I'll go with Dreams Underfoot. I think I actually have that one too. I totally agree though that de Lint is amazing with Native American mythology. If you enjoyed that aspect I think you'd really like Moonheart. I fell in love with that book. I think it's a stand alone, but I could be wrong. It worked for me as a stand alone though about a year ago.

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  4. Must try de Lint. Must try de Lint. Must try de Lint. Sorry it wasn't as good as it might have been, but still your review got me itching to try something by him again. I even bought Dreams Underfoot thanks to Quixotic's recommendation, but just haven't gotten to it. Why can't there just be 12 more hours in a day?!!

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  5. To read a book with a large cast of characters might be confusing, especially when my memory isn't that fantastic, hehe. But still, this is one book I want to read after reading a few reviews from fellow bloggers... I'm hoping to read more of Charles de Lint's books and also to read more reviews about them so that it helps me to choose what to add to my wishlist. :)

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  6. Andi: Yes, you should try him! Even though my experience with this book was less than perfect I still enjoyed it, and it didn't make me change my opinion of De Lint. It's like...as much as I worship Terry Pratchett, I know that some Discworld books wouldn't have had the same impact if I hadn't read what came before them.

    Marg: I'm relieved I'm not the only one too! And yes, there really should be a suggested reading order. One question: have you gotten around to reviewing this one yet? It's that when I was searching for other blog reviews to link to, google came up with your blog, but once I clicked the link it said that the page no longer existed.

    Chris: It could be just me :P Well, Marg agrees, but I have no doubt that for some readers this will be a perfect starting point. I think I'll read Dreams Underfoot next. And before that, a non-Newford book that I've heard wonders about: The Little Country. I was ridiculously excited when I managed to mooch a copy the other day :P Moonheart sounds great too!

    Debi: Yes you must :P And I know what you mean...36 hours days sound wonderful to me.

    Melody: Yeah...for example, for the first few hundred pages I kept getting Sophie and Wendy, two of Jilly's friends, mixed up. And I don't want to discourage anyone from reading this book, so I'm glad you weren't discouraged :P It just might not work as a starter for everyone.

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  7. Ermm...not yet...but soon!

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  8. Marg: I look forward to your review!

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  9. Your comments about missing the backstory is exactly why I have trouble with reading a series in a non-chronological order. I like to know all of the backstories before I read a book, even if it is self-contained. Unfortunately, the library doesn't always contain a full series.

    anyhow, great review! I want to read these books sometime.

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  10. I've never read anything by de Lint but especially now that I have a copy of Dingo, thanks to Carl, I want to start. Seems like it might be better to start at the beginning though. I looked on his website and in the FAQ he does list the order of the Newford books.
    Go here and scroll down a bit.

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  11. The Onion Girl was the last "Bedford" story that I read, so it didn't occur to me that someone would be missing parts of the back-stories if they read this one first . . . I did the same thing with The Lord of the Rings years ago - I read the Hobbit after I finished the trilogy - oops!

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  12. Kim: Me too. I know that some people don't mind so much, but I like understanding all the references and such.

    Tanabata: Thanks for the link! I remember now having seen that before, but I had completely forgotten about it. I hope you enjoy Dingo!

    Ken: Tolkien would forgive you...after all, he went back and rewrote that chapter with Bilbo and Gollum :P

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  13. I am sorry you didn't enjoy this as much as you could have. I found that Waifs and Strays acted as a great introduction to the characters, but I imagine reading more of the earlier Newford nvels would make it even more powerful. Like you say it is a powerful book as well as a fantasy tale.

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  14. Thanks for this review, now I know I need to read more Newford books before venturing into this one. For now I only have Tapping the Dream Tree, a collection of stories bought a while ago, I hope it'll be a good one. Then I seriously need to find a guide to his books to know which books i should read first...

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  15. Rhinoa: I did enjoy it, though. I tend to be more picky about wanting to know all the background stories than most. Some readers who pick this one up without having read any Charles de Lint before seem to have no problems.

    Valentina: There's always that guide at the official site that Tanabata linked to. Short stories seem to be a good place to start with.

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  16. I certainly can see your point. I started my DeLint with the sequel to this book, Widdershins, of all things mostly because I knew based on the summary of the book that it would have a thread of romance in it which is what I wanted. There were a lot of characters but I still enjoyed it for what it was. It was really fun going back and reading Moonlight and Vines this year to see these and other characters pop up in short stories that were before Widdershins' time. I will certainly be reading The Onion Girl at some point. I recommend Widdershins to you sometime in the future. I think you would enjoy it especially as it is the direct sequel to OG.

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  17. Carl, thanks for leaving that comment. I've added Widdershins to my library list. I just hate that there isn't a list somewhere that tells you this information! Not that I could find anyway!

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  18. Carl, thanks for the recommendations. Widderhins does sound great. I think I'll go back and read some of the short story collections first and then pick up that one.

    Marg: There's the one that Tanabata mentioned, but yeah, it's not too detailed. I wish there was a nice little chart telling you which characters are features in each novel, like there is for Discworld.

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  19. I reviewed "The Onion Girl" here:

    http://bookswithoutanypictures.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/the-onion-girl-by-charles-de-lint/

    This was only the second Newford book that I read, with the first being a collection of short stories. I didn't feel lost, but after reading a few more of de Lint's novels, I kind of wish that I'd started with perhaps a more lighthearted one. One of the things that I love about de Lint is that each novel he writes can stand alone, but as one reads more, characters begin to appear from other books.

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