Oct 12, 2012

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy

The Tricksters is a subtle and haunting maybe-ghost-story that takes place in New Zealand over the Christmas holidays. Seventeen-year-old Harry (short for Ariadne) and her family are gathered at their holiday beach house, Carnival’s Hide, to spend Christmas and New Year’s. Carnival Hide’s name comes from the Carnivals, the family that lived there long ago; a family that was hit by tragedy when the youngest son Teddy Carnival inexplicably drowned. The Hamiltons’ holiday celebrations are interrupted by the arrival of three strangers. These three young men claim to be brothers and descendents of Teddy Carnival, and while some of the Hamiltons find them sinister others succumb to their charms. As the long-hidden secrets surrounding these visitors surface, so do the secret tensions in Harry’s own family.

There are several things going on in The Tricksters, and my favourite is perhaps not the one that will immediately draw most readers’ attention. The Tricksters is a haunting supernatural tale, but to me that’s nowhere near as interesting as Margaret Mahy’s brilliant exploration of family dynamics and of a young girl’s creativity and budding sexuality. And don’t even get me started on her subtle and precise writing.

Let me begin by telling you about the Hamiltons’ family dynamics. I’ve compared Margaret Mahy to Diana Wynne Jones in the past, and the way they both write about families is the main reason why. Both do a wonderful job of using fantasy plots to explore the tenderness and the tensions between siblings, between spouses, between parents and children. The reasons why things are not quite well in Harry’s family become clearer and clearer as the story progresses, and when they’re family out in the open you can’t help but feel sympathy for everyone involved. I was reminded of Kate de Goldi’s The 10PM Question, and since that was my favourite read of last year this is high praise indeed: both are stories about families doing their best under less than ideal circumstances; recovering from what many would consider the unrecoverable; refusing to be unhappy because their lives didn’t follow a predetermined script. In both novels, the huge hurts that were caused are not brushed aside, but you get to see how people can begin to rebuild their lives after dealing with the unthinkable.

But this, brilliantly done though it is, isn’t my favourite thing about The Tricksters. Remember how when I read The Changeover I said I loved its examination of consent and its unapologetic portrayal of a teen girl’s budding desire? Well, everything I loved about that novel is here too. The Tricksters focuses on Harry’s imaginary life, and this includes her sexuality. It explores her fantasies and desires, and specifically how they’re shaped by the cultural narratives around her and what they tell her about “bad boys”, excitement, and the degree of agency a woman is or isn’t supposed to have.

Harry is secretly a writer: she has a book she removes from its hiding place ever day and adds a few paragraphs to without fail. Her rule is that she’s not allowed to put it back without having added at least a few lines. What she’s writing in the book is a fantasy romance featuring the villainous Prince Valery, the winged Belen, and damsel in distress Jessica, a stand-in for Harry herself. The Tricksters presents excerpts of Harry’s writing, and Mahy frames them in a way that allows readers to note their internalised misogyny but still invites them to respect why writing this story matters so much to Harry.

I might have been put off by these excerpts had this been a book by a new-to-me author, but I’d read The Changeover before and trusted Mahy’s interest in examining the issues around rape culture and consent. My hopes that the particular shape of Harry’s fantasies would be given due attention were fulfilled before too long. What happens is that the three strangers who arrive at Carnival Hide bear uncanny resembles to Harry’s imaginary romantic heroes, and this gives her the opportunity to learn the difference between the brand of forceful romance she finds titillating in the imagination and in real life. Take, for example, these passages:

“Emma’s waiting for me,” Harry said, “and anyway I don’t want to stay.” She did not like the feeling she was accessible, whereas, holding her from behind, he remained secret and powerful. And then the thought came to her that somehow, through inventing Belen, she had laid a command on Felix so that he must come out of the dark to waylay her and refuse to set her free.
“Let me go!” she demanded stiffly, but he only laughed and said, “Don’t hurry, Harry,” in a voice that only pretended to be pleading. His touch was not an accident, but an assault, and Harry realised, with immense outrage, that she was not going to be allowed to return to Carnival’s Hide unhindered.

Though she did not look forward to meeting Felix the following day, she did not feel it would be an impossible encounter for she had total right on her side. But then, after putting her light out and trying uselessly to sleep, she put it on again and reread her description of Belen and Jessica falling on to the apple blossom. Only when she had crossed these words out, burdened as they were now with a horrid fatality, did she feel set free, not only from a faulty story, but from a troubling idea that need no longer trouble her again – the idea that it might be exciting to have choice taken away from her.

I should make it clear that nothing happens to Harry beyond this, and that this is certainly not a story where a young girl is shown to have “invited” assault because she fantasised about it. After the encounter with Felix, Harry feels guilty and ashamed of her writing, but in the end the narrative gives her ample space to have these fantasies, to negotiate them, to understand their potential ugly side, and to find a more assertive expression of sexuality without once shaming her. Harry is growing up and learning about her sexuality in a world that equates desire and excitement with female submission, with “having choice taken away from her”; the fact that she internalises these ideas is certainly not her fault. Mahy’s willingness to interrogate the persistent appeal of this brand of romance without resorting to victim blaming is as refreshing today as it was in 1986.

The Tricksters is a smart, subtle and resonant novel, full of layers and mysteries and of things hiding just beneath the surface of the narrative. It’s a perfect example of everything I love about Margaret Mahy’s writing.

More interesting bits:

Harry was about to say she couldn’t think of anything she wanted and almost thought it was true, but, as her mouth was opening, her thought turned inside out and she saw plainly that what she wanted was not nothing, but everything. She was sick of feeling closed in by people above and people below, of being good old Harry, not wonderful Ariadne, for that was her real name. She was sick of being gratefully but carelessly praised for docility when she wanted to have a turn at being the difficult, brilliant one instead, and she longed to be overwhelmed by something so whirling and powerful she could never be expected to resist it.

All she wanted today was the tree in the house, the old songs with their promises that the world would be remade with the birth of a baby, and to be Benny’s age, sitting with her family on Christmas morning, opening her presents and finding them all surprising and marvelous, no matter how inconsequential. She wanted everyone kind and affectionate, not passionate and tormenting – everything open, no maggoty secrets and silences, and no arguments with other, darker arguments hidden in them. Somewhere, waiting to be found again in the approaching season, was an old, innocent self, sexless as a tennis racquet, living in a time before Jack and Naomi wept at each other late at night, and before she had made Belen a body and wings of words or allowed Prince Valery to joke at the expense of innocence.

They read it too: In Bed With Books


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  1. You always analyze books so well. It sounds like this book touches on some great issues and is just begging to be discussed.

  2. Oh Ana, it's so annoying the way you always add books to my list of things I ***must*** read! :--). But, I should add, the sure sign (to me) of a "true" librarian! But also I want to add, and I can't remember who was just recently mentioning this as a pet peeve, but I do wish so many authors wouldn't adopt gender-confusing names for characters, even if it makes a point of some kind. It also makes for confusing reading and reviews, and it's all about ME, right? (ha ha)

  3. I'm ashamed to admit I hadn't even heard about Margaret Mahy until July, when all of the sudden everyone started singing her praise. I hope to fix that knowledge gap soon. Do you recommend starting with this one?

  4. OMG--this book sounds freakin' amazing! Better than amazing. It sounds like a book that deserves to be hugged. Must. Have.

    And I definitely need to just go ahead and read The 10PM Question. I've kept trying to interest Gray into reading it with me, but he's been resistant and I haven't wanted to push it on him. Think maybe I just need to give that up, and read it by myself.

  5. I am absolutely certain that if I had not read this review, but stumbled upon the book in a bookstore, I would not have ever known all of its more important undercurrents. And that is why we have you. You have drawn me in.

  6. I'm definitely sold. Sounds like a great read.

  7. I am thoroughly convinced that I need to get my hands on this book. :-)

  8. I had a dream the other night that the library ended up having ALL of Margaret Mahy's books in e-book formats. Instead of only having them in print and ALWAYS CHECKED OUT (or missing from the shelves).

  9. Wow, I am not sure how I missed having this author on my radar at all, especially as you have talked about her positively in the past and I remember all of those reviews. But apparently, she slipped my mind!

    This is a fantastic review that really brings to light an aspect of the book that I bet is missing from most other people's reviews. Thanks for that!

  10. Fascinating. I just read an interesting article on teenage girls' crushes on serial killers, and while the situation is much different here, I see a similarity in a young girl exploring her sexuality via fiction or fictionalization. Onto my reading list it goes.

  11. Lovely review! I've somehow completely overlooked Mahy as well, but I love the way you describe her writing--especially when you compare it to DWJ's relationship dynamics. Have you read Madigan's Fantasia? Just browsing her books on Goodreads, that seems the most appealing to me.

  12. Why doesn't my library have this?! *pouts* It does have The Changeover, though, so I'll be requesting that soon!

  13. I feel like a cranky voice here, but I just don't like Mahy's style. Something about her characters' dialogue? Some awkwardness of phrasing? Something about the way she writes makes me feel like I am being hit by small hammers instead of being drawn into the world she creates. I don't hate her! It's just that I always feel I am being drawn up short by her awkward writing style, so I can never fully enter her worlds.

  14. Kathy: Aw, thank you. I try!

    Jill: Sorry for the annoyance ;) But your words about it being a sign of a librarian made me smile :D I think that in this case Harry's gender ambiguous nickname is thematically important - she's kind of taking shelter in a sexless identity (which is coded as male in our society) because growing into Ariadne is scary/confusing when there are so many mixed messages about being a woman and a sexual being. So the fact that the name actually existed for a reason made me more forgiving.

    Alex: Her passing seem to have brought her to the attention of more people, and while I'm of course very sad that she's gone that's always a good thing.

    Debi: Yes, read it! I mean, this too, but ESPECIALLY The 10PM Question. I'll be very surprised if it doesn't become a new favourite of yours. Um, no pressure or anything :P

    Sandy: My work here is done, then :D

    Trisha and Stephanie: I hope you both enjoy it!

    Jenny: If only! On a side note, I think it's pretty awesome that you have dreams about these things :P

    Aarti: That happens to me a lot of times - some books or authors just keep falling off my radar even though I've heard great things about them several times. I'm glad to have reminded you of Mahy!

    Clare: That was a super interesting read - thank you for sharing!

    Heidi: I haven't, no - I'm still a newbie when it comes to her work. I hope it turns out to be a good one!

    Eva: yay! Can't wait to hear what you think.

    Mumsy: Part of me wants to go, "Nooooo! Say it ain't so!" because she seems just like your kind of writer thematically. But then again, there are tons of writers who seem right up my alley but whose style I just can't get along with for whatever reason, so all I can say is "fair enough" :P

  15. So glad to see you reviewing this one. Mahy is one of my all time favourites, and this one in particular.

    It has special meaning for me as it helped me get over that adolescent stage of super self conciousness about my writing. I found it very significant that Harry's passage into adulthood is shown by her becoming self-aware of her writing.

    In fact, it is very interesting that the attempted rape scene is far less violating that the scene where -


    her sister mockingly reads her book to her family. That was the real rape in the book, a loss of innocence which impels Harry turn on her sister and in turn, rob her of her innocent and childish view of her father by revealing the family secret.

    And what is so satisfying is that although everyone concerned is hurt, they find ways to deal with it and don't come across as victims.


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.