Jules: Here we are again with a co-review, this time of Red Spikes, a collection of ten short stories by Australian author Margo Lanagan. These stories were originally published last year in Australia by Allen & Unwin, one of Australia’s leading independent publishers (their cover is shown on the left here), and Random House/Knopf will be releasing them this October with the cover you see on the right (jacket illustration by Jeremy Caniglia). Eisha and I were thrilled to have an opportunity to read advance proofs of this collection of short stories.
And I have Eisha to thank for turning me on to Lanagan’s writing in the first place. She reviewed White Time here in February of this year, and we have an interview with Lanagan lined up for tomorrow’s “One Shot World Tour: Best Read with Vegemite!” — a focus on Australian writers, which will be happening at a handful of kidlit blogs, all organized by Colleen Mondor (go here to see the full schedule). I really enjoyed this collection of stories and Lanagan’s writing and am grateful to have finally read some of her stuff. I want to recommend this book to everyone I know — as in, shout-it-from-the-rooftops recommend — and I don’t normally read short stories. Get me.
Instead of trying to summarize the collection as a whole or summarizing each story, I’ll send you to this link. And I echo that woman’s sentiments about the story “Winkie” in this anthology. Holy crap. I don’t know which was scarier, though: “Winkie,” a horror fantasy story borne from the nursery rhyme “Wee Willie Winkie,” or “Under Hell, Over Heaven,” which brings the Catholic construct of Limbo to life for the reader. Yes, Lanagan takes you to the very edge of Hell. Did I already say holy crap? Lanagan really takes you to the settings of each of her fantasy/speculative fiction stories, and her writing is — at turns — eloquent and evocative and provocative . . . . and she really knows how to SCARE THE PANTS OFF OF YOU, as my middle-school self would put it.
Eisha, I’m not doing justice to her writing here. Help? What did you think of these stories, especially having read some of her other books? Ray Bradbury came to mind immediately for me as I read her writing. And that’s a compliment. A big-time compliment. Do you agree? Do you find it hard to let some of these stories go? Duuuuude, I can’t. And I want to re-read it, which is a BOLD STATEMENT from me, since I truly feel as if I don’t have enough time in one life to read all the books I want to read and so I don’t re-read. Ever. (Except for What the Birds See by Sonya Hartnett. I recently re-read that, since it’s blindingly good writing, but I digress).
eisha: Before I answer your questions about Lanagan’s writing, I have to say – I just clicked on that link above and looked at Jeremy Caniglia’s art. GAH! The cover painting is lovely in a slightly creepy way, and so are many of his works, but – to borrow your phrase – holy crap, some of them are really really disturbing.
Speaking of things that stay with you… oh yes, Lanagan’s writing has that going on. I’ve read all three of her short story collections published in the US, and I have been consistently blown away. She’s brilliant at creating original worlds and compelling stories. But the haunting quality of her best stories has to do, I think, with the believability of the characters and the intense emotional connection they forge with the reader. The premise of a story like “Daughter of the Clay,” about a changeling child from a race of clay-based beings, is pretty far out there. But her skill in taking us inside that clay-girl’s head and feeling her bewilderment and sadness at not being able to win her mother’s love is what grounds the story in the reader’s own emotions. I think it’s this combination of imaginative concepts and relatable, multi-dimensional characters that makes her so good at what she does. And actually, I’d probably say that’s what made Bradbury so good at what he did, too.
And you’re so right, “Winkie” is the freakiest thing I’ve ever read. Ugh. I think Jeremy Caniglia could illustrate a pretty awesome picture book version of it. If, you know, anyone wanted to make a picture book out of a story that would guarantee your child NEVER SLEEPS AGAIN.
Another interesting thing Lanagan does that you don’t see too often in modern YA fiction is write from animal points-of-view – in this collection, “Monkey’s Paternoster” and “A Feather in the Breast of God.” What did you think of those?
Jules: Excellent point about how she grounds us emotionally in the story. I think even the nighmare-inducing “Winkie” — like “Daughter of the Clay” — also emphasizes the mother-daughter bond (as well as scaring the pants off of me — did I already mention that?).
To answer your question about the animal points-of-view, I have a mental note to read “Monkey’s Paternoster” again, since it was the most out-there for me. But that doesn’t mean I thought it was poorly-written; I mean that for most of her stories, she takes us into a whole new world, occasionally giving us an all-new vocabulary (as with a lot of science fiction and some fantasy) — such as, the “landed gods” in “Forever Upward.” But it took me quite a while to fully grasp the world in “Monkey’s Paternoster,” though — like all her stories — I thought it was written with such compelling, vivid imagery. Plus, in a weird way, it’s a bit of a compliment, I think, to say that I feel compelled to read that story again; it’s a testament to her ability to capture the impulsive, rather mercurial personalities of those animals. You know what I mean? I was all over the place with them, and I want to take it all in again — more slowly this time. “A Feather in the Breast of God” was entirely more accessible — the notion (for those who haven’t read this collection) of a pet bird as a guardian angel of sorts, a life-saver for a teenage girl about to get herself into a whole heap of trouble.
What impressed me about all these stories and with her writing in general is her splendid power of observation (ooh, that makes her sound like a superhero). I don’t think a person could write this well without possessing that. Couple it with her command of the language (really, I wonder how long it takes her to so carefully construct these amazing stories?), and it’s like no writing I’ve read before. Lanagan is truly a singular and — dare I say (I risk seeming hyperbolic again) — extraordinary talent.
I guess I’ll let you wrap things up, especially since we have our interview with Lanagan tomorrow and she’ll be talking more about her stories and writing. Woo hoo! But I’ll throw this out at you before I sign off: What did you think of all the fairy tale elements in this one, E? That first story, “Baby Jane,” blew me away, and — just think — it was my first Margo Lanagan story ever. What a great way to be deflowered, huh?
eisha: Heh. Yeah, it is a great way. All three collections so far have started with, arguably, the strongest stories for each: White Time starts with the title story, a mind-blowing look at the consequences of time travel; and Black Juice starts with “Singing My Sister Down,” which is not a horror story whatever that review says. It was my “deflowering” story, and it is beautiful and haunting, and yes, it’s disturbing, but it’s not “Winkie” scary. Unless, maybe, you’ve got a phobia about… well, I won’t ruin it. It’s still my favorite Lanagan story of all, and I insist that you read both her other collections as soon as you possibly can.
As for the fairy tale elements, you’re right, Lanagan does make use of those: underdog heroes, monsters, queens, peasants, fairies, changelings, angels, demons… But what she doesn’t do, EVER, is give you a cozy “Once Upon a Time…” at the beginning of the story. She always drops you smack in the middle of the situation, with nary a word of exposition, and therefore no comfortable distance between the you and the action. The reader is forced to pay attention to every word to try and catch up to the characters, like you mentioned with “Monkey’s Paternoster,” and she gives you just enough to keep you engrossed, rather than frustrated. She never condescends to her audience. I love that.
Jules, I can’t tell you how happy I am that we got to review this together, and we get to post our interview with Ms. Lanagan herself tomorrow. She’s one of those writers that makes me want to hand out free copies of her books on the streetcorner, wearing a big sandwich board that says “MARGO LANAGAN ROCKS!” – you know? I’m so glad you enjoyed Red Spikes too.
Till next time…