Jun 29, 2010

The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley

The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley

Corinna Stonewall – Corin to the world – is a fifteen-year-old orphan. Her choice to dress as boy was a sort of survival strategy, and it helped her conquer a position as the Rhysbridge Foundling Home’s Folk Keeper. The Folk are savage and constantly ravenous underground creatures that have to be kept appeased with gifts of food, lest their turn their displeasure to the household, the livestock, or the crops. Being Folk Keeper is a dangerous position, but it’s one that brings Corinna power, and that allows her to escape the life of servitude that would otherwise be her lot.

Corinna’s life changes when one day a Great Lady sends for her and tells her that her husband, Lord Merton, specifically requested that she be taken to their house in Cliffsend, one of the Northern Isles. She accepts on the condition that she become their new Folk Keeper, and off they go – towards the fiercer Folk of the North; towards, Finian, Lady Alicia’s son; and towards old secrets that will explain why Corinna always knows the exact time, why she lacks motor coordination and keeps stumbling about, or why her hair always grows two inches while she sleeps at night.

The Folk Keeper is a dark retelling of the selkies’ legends, but I won’t tell you how exactly these elements fit into the story, as that would spoil half the fun. Corinna’s somewhat abrasive narrative voice, the very original imagery, and the atmospheric storytelling make this a retelling unlike any other I’ve read before. Actually (and yes, I realise I’m about to contradict myself), I was somewhat reminded of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, which is a huge favourite of mine. Both books have a similar sort of ambience; both are largely set in dark underground places; and both are, among other things, narratives about young girls who have reached puberty and have to confront the changes in their bodies, the difficulties in facing the world as women and sexual beings, and the fact that whether their want to or not, they are actors in age-old power struggles.

As I read The Folk-Keeper, I was also reminded of a quote on fairy tales I read at Jenny’s blog recently. In her review of On The Nature of Fairy Tales by Max Luthi, Jenny said , “Luthi notes that relationships and feelings are externalized rather than explained in emotional terms. Relationships and connections between characters are tangible: a princess will slip something into her lover’s pocket before he leaves. A girl who walks a long way in search of something or someone will wear through three pairs of iron shoes, her weariness represented rather than described.” I think this is very true. It’s something that might be misread as lack of subtlety, but for me it’s just a different mode of storytelling altogether. I also think this might be a part of the reason why fairy tales are sometimes dismissed as lacking depth and complexity and Not Being About Human Concerns At All, mostly by people who aren’t used to reading them.

There’s a lot of subtext in The Folk Keeper – about gender, about power, about female sexuality, and about the changes in how Corinna experiences her identity as she grows up. But rather than being overt, this is mostly expressed in the imagery, especially in the transformation imagery in the second half of the novel. This use of symbolism, and the opportunities it gives authors to express things that the language we use is not quite prepared to tackle directly, is actually one of the main reasons why I love fairy tales and fantasy so much.

I said before that Corinna’s tone was quite abrasive, and this is true. While I can see this putting off some readers, it was actually part of why I found The Folk Keeper so engaging. Corinna is a very angry young woman, and with good reason: that’s simply the demeanour she needed to adopt to be able to survive. This is often the case with boys and girls growing up in difficult circumstances, but with girls in particular it’s often seen as some sort of horrifying tragedy, and a perversion of their “natural” gentleness and tenderness. Hooray for unapologetically angry protagonists (who have good reasons to be angry, like Corinna does).

So: we have a uniquely atmospheric story, an original heroine, folk tale elements galore, and plenty of gender subtext. Add a fully-realised fantasy world that seems larger than what fits into the book, and what’s not to love? Please write more books, Ms Billingsley. I’ll be keeping an eye on you.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)


  1. I have to admit that I love the sound of this book! I want it and am rushing off to add it to my wishlist right away. I like the sounds of a 'unapologetically angry protagonist' :)

  2. Wow. Sounds incredible. As in I-want-it-now! And you reminded me that I really need to go pull The Tombs of Atuan off the shelf!

  3. Onto the wish-list it goes (I should really have a separate one for "Ana's recommendations"!)

    I can do unapologetically angry protagonists; I love angry :)

  4. This does sound good. The Tombs of Atuan is also one of my favorite books.

  5. Ana this sounds eerie and wonderful. (I absolutely adore the cover). I have really enjoyed my exploration in fairy tales this year and have so many on my list already.

    I never responded to one of your comments a month or two ago (I'm lacking in that department) but I remembered I was curious why you didn't like Jung. I adore that most of his psychology is based off of mythology. (Plus, bonus points for him for pissing Freud off). I see a lot of the reasons why fairy tales are so appealing similar to why his belief systems are. I think it's wonderful that Campbell uses a lot of his theory in his works as well. If not, I feel that Jung might be lost to most population. Just some thoughts.

  6. This sounds fantastic, Ana! Since I never know how I'll react to a narrator like that, I'll see if I can get it through my library first (and, of course, when I start using the library again, since I really, really, REALLY need to get my at-home pile down right now...).

  7. I don't think I've ever read a retelling like this, so I'd love to get this book! It sounds fantastic.

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  9. This sounds unlike anything I have ever read so I'm thinking I should read it :) Not to mention the cover looks awesome. Thanks for the review!

  10. Ooh, I don't really know much about the Selkies. I like the cover of this book, but I don't know how well I'd deal with an abrasive narrator. Decisions, decisions.

  11. I just read a book with a little bit of selkie lore in it, but it left me wanting to know more, so this sounds very appealing to me.

  12. Reading your reviews is SO dangerous to my TBR, because I want The Folk Keeper NOW!

  13. What an unusual book. I don't think I have ever read about the selkies. I find the cover rather off putting though. Not sure if this is one for me, but glad you enjoyed it.

  14. What a thoughtful and elegant review! I do admit that this book sounds really incredible to me, especially in light of the imagery and subtlety of the writing. I am going to add this one to my list for an upcoming purchase and hope that I enjoy it as much as you did. Thanks for bringing my attention to this very unusual sounding book!

  15. I read this a few years ago and found it very strange. I wasn't familiar with any selkie legends, so it was hard for me to figure out what was going on, at first. I didn't think about the parallels with Tombs of Atuan (my favorite of the Earthsea books) but now that you point them out, it is so clear. Makes me want to read both again, for myself.

  16. Compelling thoughts, Nymeth!

    The Folk Keeper is a big favorite of mine, although I can't say I care for this cover. Bit of a spoiler. One of the things I enjoyed most during my first reading was the bewildering entry into the world, where its strangeness and harshness (and the main character's sex) is revealed piecemeal.

    You found Corinna abrasive? I just thought her tone fit in with her toughness--which might have been adopted to some degree, but the fact that she was able to adopt it seemed to say something about who she was. I was very easy with her narration. But, then, I may well be abrasive myself without knowing it...

    Would you say Arha was abrasive, too?

    I love your connecting this book with Tombs of Atuan, which I never would have thought of, but you are very right! I begin certain rare novels (like this one) with a euphoric certainty that I am going to get a very particular reading experience. Usually they have mythic themes, though not always; it is more a certain kind of storytelling I recognize: saying just enough but not too much about the characters' inner lives, and letting the action and settings do the emotional heavy-lifting. The first time I felt it was the first time I read Tombs of Atuan!

    I had never thought appreciating this sort of book might require a specific reading skill, although it did puzzle me that these treasures of mine were not always well known, not much liked by the people I recommended them to, or why so few are being published.

    As a sideline, I've also noticed that most of "fairy tale retold" YA novels that started gaining in the 90's actually *don't* purvey the imagery or depth. Some are quite good, but stylistically they are de-fairy-taled fairy tales.

    So, what do you think makes some readers enthusiastically conversant in fairy-tale-ese, and others not? --I know a lot of people who grew up on fairy tales and classic fantasy who aren't.

  17. Wow, I want I want I want...but I HAVE to stop buying books!

    I was thinking about your (and Trapunto's) comments about fairy tales, and this is my thought: Those fairy tale conventions, where the relationships/feelings are externalized, act like a boundary to me; they make the fairy-tale world seem very separate and exclusive, something I can read about but never truly enter. Which is interesting, and valuable because it is somehow forbidden to me: I can stand on its border, but not enter in. So the retellings are cool to me precisely because they drop those conventions, opening up that barrier and letting me in to roam around that land.

  18. Cor! This one sounds fantastic. Definitely going on the wishlist! :D

    I really like the cover as well.

  19. I love that cover! And I feel like I've read this before - the author's name is familiar, and "Corin" sounds like a name I know. But none of the plot elements sound at all familiar.

    I like angry girls too! It is why I like the companion in this series of Dr. Who so much. The only thing about angry protagonists is that you have to keep them sympathetic too, which I expect is quite tricky.

  20. Great review, Nymeth! Another one for my list :)

  21. Sounds fun (in a meaningful way)!

  22. I have goosebumps thinking about this one. Awesome.

  23. Your posts always send me off to learn more about something, not to mention to add the book to my list to read in the future. In this case I'm not familiar with the selkies legend and now my interest has been piqued and I need to go find out more!

  24. Sounds great Nymeth! I will keep an eye on it!

  25. I read this ages ago and loved it!! It was a wonderful story though I don't remember any of the issues you bring up, but then I'm not apt to notice that kind of stuff.

    I'd certainly like to see her write more books. I see she has one coming out next year but I can't find a summary of it "Chime". Have you read her other one "Well-Wished", I haven't but it sounds very good, too.

  26. I always think Selkies are water creatures, as I'm sure that's what the children in The Water Dragon think they've found. But not quite mermaids am I right in thinking?

    Fantastic review and I liked that you picked out Corin's anger. We need more girls who are allowed to be angry and it's always nice to meet one.

  27. I didn't recognize the cover you posted and the review sounds like something I'd love. I went to look it up and realized that I've passed this book 100 times on the shelf, but it's got a much more subdued cover and I hadn't really paid attention to it.

  28. Amy: I think you'd really enjoy this, especially all the gender issues it brings up.

    Debi: You need to read Tombs of Atuan tomorrow :P

    Claire: I like angry too, and I love seeing a girl not being made to apologise for it!

    Jeanne: I'm always tempted to tell people to start Earthsea there, as I think it gives them a better idea of what Le Guin is all about than A Wizard of Earthsea.

    Christina: Interestingly enough, it was C.S. Lewis who best expressed what my problem with Jung is. Here's a quote about it from Laura Miller's "The Magician's Book":

    "He [Lewis] had a passing interest in anthropological and psychological theories about where the recurring motifs in the world’s religions and legends might have come from, and was intrigued enough by Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes to look into it. Ultimately, though, Lewis concluded that what Jung had to say was not so much a theory of myth as yet another myth. Jung’s description of the collective unconscious was magnificent, written in the quasi-mystical language of “good poetry”, but it wasn’t supported with sufficient material evidence to merit the status of science. “Surely the analysis of water should not itself be wet?” Lewis quipped. "

    It's not so much that I dislike what Jung says (as I most certainly do when it comes to Freud, for example); it's that I feel that he's a philosopher if anything, not a scientist. And it really, really bugs me to see him falsely use the cloak of intellectual authority associated with the scientific method to sell his ideas. To be completely clear, I don't think there's anything wrong with something NOT being science. There are other forms of knowledge that can be useful and can help us make sense of the world, even if they work at a more metaphorical level, like myths do. But there's a lot of intellectual dishonesty to his methods (and the time when he lived isn't really an excuse for this, I don't think), and that really puts me off. You'll probably be unsurprised to hear that I'm also not a fan of Campbell :P

    Amanda: I can see you really hating Corinna, but probably I'm just traumatized and scared you'll hate all my recommendations ;)

    Emidy: Enjoy!

    Breena: I love the cover too! I was surprised to see some of the other commenters say they don't like it.

    Aarti: I don't think anyone will necessarily find her abrasive. The book is a really quick read, so you might as well give it a try :P

    Kathy: Selkie lore is so fascinating. I'm ridiculously excited that one of my absolute favourite authors (Margo Lanagan) is writing a selkies book.

    April: Sorry :P

    Vivienne: I actually love that cover!

    Zibilee: Thank you! I hope you enjoy it if and when you get to it :)

    Jeane: I'm glad to hear you think the comparison makes sense! I want to reread The Tombs of Atuan again soon myself.

  29. Trapunto: Eek, I didn't think of the cover being spoiler-y. Hopefully nobody will pick up on that? Now I feel horribly guilty - sadly I entered the book with full knowledge of who/what Corinna was (possibly I read it online somewhere), and so I missed the gradual revelation and didn't realise I was ruining everything for others :\ Anyway, as for Corinna, I did and I didn't. I really hope that didn't sound offensive; it was probably a poor choice of words on my part! I loved her as she was, and I love her toughness, but I can see her putting readers off because we still have such a hard time accepting anger in girls. So my description of her was a bit of a plea for people not to give up on her. Your question about fairy tales is a great one - I don't like the idea of appreciating a certain type of books involving certain skills either, but I find it so surprising that so many people respond to these types of books so differently than I do. Maybe it's not a skill, but a willingness to be open, to take them seriously, and to look under the surface rather than dismissing them as meaningless or shallow?

    Mumsy: I think that's probably the reason why I love both the originals, in which feelings are externalised/presented symbolically, and those "de-fairy-taled" retellings Trapunto was talking about, which add the kind of psychological insight we're used to in contemporary fiction. I think both can tell us a lot about what being human is all about, but I also tend to feel closer to the second type.

    Darren: Go team Awesome Cover :P

    Jenny: When I was looking for other reviews of this, I found one of the author's other book, Well-Wished, at your blog. You said you loved it as a child but a re-reading proved disappointing :P

    Iliana: Thanks!

    Jill: It really is!

    Trisha: This is right up your alley!

    Kathleen: Enjoy your selkie research :D

    Andreea: I hope you find it!

    Nicola: Well, we all read/see the world through our own lenses, so I totally understand that not every reader would see the things I did in the story. I'm glad you loved it too, though, and I need to see if I can find well-Wished!

    Jodie: You're right, but I shan't tell you more or else it might be spoiler-y, like Trapunto said :P And yes, we absolutely do. It bugs me that angry girls still get such negative reactions for the most part.

    amcatoir: I've seen that other cover online and I have to say I like this one much, much better!

  30. Not to echo all the other comments, but WOW that cover is great! I had the much more subdued version growing up - a sienna-tinted portrait of Corinna holding a candle and opening a door. Much darker and more foreboding - although this cover does give a couple things away!

    My sister and I are rereading our favorite YA fantasy books for our podcast and I just revisited The Folk Keeper for the first time in about 20 years. I think I actually liked it better as an adult! The sneaky coming of age story and family history mystery were so well done; nothing was ever too obvious. Franny Billingsley's prose is lyrical without ever being overbearing and I love the power of The Last Word. I also appreciate how Corinna's powers are tied to embracing her female side so that becoming a woman is connected to strength and heightened abilities.

    Our podcast is Dragon Babies on iTunes if you'd like to check out our Folk Keeper episode. Thanks for creating such a compelling review, I want more people to read this incredible book!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.