liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
[personal profile] liv
Recently read: The interior life by Katherine Blake. (c) 1990 Katherine Blake; Pub Baen Books 1990; ISBN: 0-671-72010-4

This was a present from [ profile] rysmiel, and I picked it up while I was in the middle of a book I'm not really getting on with, and got hooked. It's an original fantasy, intertwined with a surprisingly fascinating totally mundane story.

The whole premise of The interior life just shouldn't work: it's about a middle aged woman who escapes from her pleasant but dull life by imagining a kind of swords and sorcery romance. I think the reason it does work is because Blake takes both parts completely seriously. The framing story of Sue's boring suburban life is not just an excuse to tell a nominally more exciting magical story; I really cared about whether Sue would overcome her shyness and make friends and reconnect with her husband and swing the PTA of her children's school towards voting for the right decision. Equally, the fantasy tale isn't undermined because it's presented as existing in Sue's imagination; it feels real, and there isn't any clever literary bullshit ambiguity about whether the magical, pseudo-Mediaeval kingdom really exists or whether Sue is crazy, it's explicitly a vision quest and real on its own terms. I particularly enjoyed the way that Sue can partially decide what happens in her invented plot, but only partially, it has a sort of independent existence too.

When I mentioned tIL before, several people commented that they enjoyed the mundane sections more than the fantasy. I wouldn't go that far, it's not exceptionally good as a psychological novel about a housewife. But I certainly did enjoy both and it's the interplay between the two strands that really lifts this book out of the orindary. I really liked the way that Sue grows as a person through imagining / visiting this secondary world, but instead of the obvious clich├ęd thing where the fantasy plot is reduced to just a way for Sue to Learn a Lesson, it has her happier, more actualized self incorporating the other world into her reality rather than escaping into it. The conclusion is just great:
Demoura within Earth [was] held as cloase as a nut in its shell. Everything she saw was pregnant with its deeper counterpart, its secret meaning. Earth had become an eggshell crust on the surface of Demoura, needing only a touch to break through, and translucent to a splendid light.

The fantasy itself is pretty cool and interesting. Fascinatingly, the magicians in the story are those who are able to travel out of their bodies to fight battles and accomplish their feats. Sue also takes time to imagine non-magical, and non-noble characters as well, which helps to make her invented world seem solid. It's still constructed according to the rules of fantasy rather than realism, and Sue acknowledges this, but it has worldbuilding depth even if it doesn't really make sense. The main plot arc is magical knights battling against the Darkness, which is a bit obvious, but it's actual literal darkness rather than coded racism. Some of the horrible things that live in the dark are really vividly imagined and feel properly other-worldly.

Sue's id is very much not my id, and some of the sexual elements of her fantasy are a bit off-putting. But because it's explicitly presented as the id of a protagonist I'm really sympathetic towards, I wasn't as bothered by it as I might have been if it had been presented without that filter. There's also a really interesting thing where she imagines mostly the kind of young, unattached people who are usually the heroes of fantasy, but she feels almsot motherly towards them, so young and inexperienced, compared to her, their creator!

Things I didn't like: some of Sue's discontent, resolved as she undergoes personal growth through her imagination, feels like a kind of unpleasant faux nostalgia. She dislikes mass-produced goods and labour-saving devices and modernity and America, and hankers for ye olden days and believes that effortful production is more authentic and thinks everything European (especially if it's English or Irish) is inherently romantic. And I just couldn't at all believe in her relationship with her children; they have to exist in order for her to be a trapped housewife, to have a reason to join the PTA, etc, but she barely seems to interact with them at all. Which is somewhat of a shame given how unusual it is for a mother to be the protagonist of this kind of book.

I was reminded of [personal profile] staranise's idea of a "book about and by people who used books and rich fantasy lives to cope with their shitty childhoods"; this is the opposite of all those books where children grow out of magic, it's specifically about an adult who uses imagination to encounter magic and cope with the problems in her life.

Currently reading: Having lost A journey to the end of the millennium by AB Yehoshua, and found it again, I in theory ought to go back to it, but I'm quite uninspired so I might not.

Up next: I borrowed Ninefox gambit by Yoon Ha Lee from [personal profile] jack, so probably that.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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