Thursday, 14 July 2011

What I've been reading: Garden Spells - Sarah Addison Allen

Okay, the main idea of this blog was to be book reviews. Thus far I've done two quasi literary political rants and nothing else. For this, good people, my apologies. I shall endeavour to shape up in future.

So. Garden Spells:

Dragon Rating: Fair sized conflagration:

I got round to reading this book after much nagging from my sister. My first thought was that both the setting and easy sense of wonder were reminiscent of Poppy Z. Brite's work, although Allen (Addison Allen? Um. Yeah, anyway) lacks something of Brite's darkness. On reflection, Allen's handling of her themes - family, home, identity, female relationships - reminded me of Barbara Kingsolver and Fannie Flag, but once again it was these writers minus something; the stark portrayal of poverty, the political awareness, and, as ever - those moral grey areas.

That was my main problem with the book really. No darkness and no moral grey. The main threat that drives the novel - Sidney's abusive ex-partner - lacks depth. He is the only character not given any interiority by the author. I'm not saying I wanted any sympathy for him, but we learn nothing of his drives - other than that he is a bully - his history, anything. It's as one of the characters says: his life has no purpose of its own - he had no purpose other than to drive Sidney back to her childhood home.

And, by making him a figure of sheer, almost faceless, malice Allen creates less of a character than an authorial cipher for 'bad masculinity'.Which I could forgive, except the 'good men' are also without real depth. David is a bad man ... because... just because. And the good men are good men because... they were raised by good people? Um... Or if they weren't, then they're gay because we're open minded and that's alright. 

As I say. Not fully convinced.

But parts of the book are lovely. Highlights, for me, were troubled, 5 year old Bay- whose voice was admirably convincing; and Evanelle - the lecherous, crazy magic lady. Both of them had such a delightful blend of tragedy, joie de vivre and outright humour to them that they alone would have made this a worthwhile read.

What's more, those aren't the only strong points. The microcosm of small-town life with its wealth of  family mythologies and feuds is wonderfully portrayed, as were the manifold depictions of love. The sections which dealt with 'food as magic' was a sheer delight. Less impressive were some sections of dialogue, especially when emotion was being discussed (surely no-one is that open), and I found the resolution of the Emma/ Hunter John story arch a little forced. But generally, if you're not wanting anything too heavy, it's a grand little read.

Verdict: I think I will read Addison's latest The Sugar Queen although it will be a borrow, not a buy. And, I'm really going to have to  make my sister read Lost Souls.

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