This morning it is downright chilly... Which is kind of ridiculous for August, but it's also rained already this month, so what can you do. School is starting within this week or the next for most of the county, and my armchair-by-a-sunny-window motif is about to get replaced by suede boots and a thick sweater and a stack of books. Roll on, autumn.
Never mind the weather; a good book can take you through any season, of course. This self-pubbed "indiebook" by Australian debut author Ceinwin (Kine-win) Langley (which has a fab cover in paperback and ebook) takes us to the edge of the cold... a withered, wintry little village of patriarchy. No, that's not its name, but it might as well have been...
Summary: Emma and her mother live in grinding poverty, but five-year-old Emma has no real idea. Her father has died, and for her birthday her mother organizes a lovely picnic at the edge of the woods. It's a rare treat, to be so close to the dark, encroaching wall of trees, and when Emma runs around - tumbles down a hill - and grabs a tree to get to her feet, her mother is quick with a smack and a scolding. NO ONE - not even on their birthday - goes into the woods, and even the edge of the woods, where the bluebells Emma loves grow, is TOO CLOSE. Later, Emma dreams she saw a mysterious boy playing a flute in the woods, but over time, reality erodes those childish dreams. Reality, for Emma and her mother, is a drafty shack, ironclad rules, and hard, hard work. No bluebells. No running around. No real dreams, either. Work, and worry is all that's left.
Once, they lived in an actual house, within the village proper. Once, Emma and her mother were well dressed, the family of the village tailor - but Emma's father died that year when she was five, and no widower in the village stepped up to marry Mama. Their tiny family's hope is now built on... Emma's marriage. She's seventeen, and at eighteen, she'll be Of Age. She MUST marry -- it's the only way to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs - but there are only two eligible boys of her age, and one of them is the Mayor's son. He's too high for her to shoot for, but there's another boy her mother insists will "do." Problem? Emma doesn't really know either of them, and could care less about them. But, reluctant or no, it's vital that she make a good impression. It could mean the difference between surviving or ...not.
A very poor girl, Emma has no opportunities to work on becoming superfluous and beautiful or talented. She's doing her best to survive. All she has is her mother's love, her dreams -- the dream of the boy with the flute, who, oddly, seems to have grown older as she has -- and the smiles provided by her snarky best friend, a Stranger called Mona. But, on the other side of the balance of Duty -- saving her mother, providing them security - is what Emma has enough? Enough to challenge the Mayor? Enough to actually get what she wants? Enough to change her world?
Peaks: The voice is memorable and consistent, the prose is uncluttered, the characterizations are deft, and the imagery - the rigid line of houses, the encroaching woods, the cloying carnations, dancing bluebells, and magical lightning bugs -- works. (Need a sample? Here ya go.) I think the best thing I can say about this story is that it's a Little Story.
We don't always talk about it in this respect, but a little story to me is one which plays out life-and-death issues close to the chest, where the microcosm is as detailed, vibrant, and important than the bigger issues. I LIKE little stories. It's not about an entire planet that needs to be saved from Certain Doom, it's one life. It's not a novel describing nations which need to be restored or some sort of epic where the heroine Saves The World. Nope. One village. One shack. One girl. Sometimes, the smallest gains are the ones which mean the most.
Class, wealth, gender, religion -- it's all there, writ tiny on the stage of this Little story. Emma faces discrimination, makes assumptions, and "others" and is "othered" based on seeing and being seen through the lens of difference. The author leaves Emma free to make poor decisions, make futile gestures, kiss up and demean herself. She is not always noble or dignified - sometimes, she stops caring and falls down on the "heroine" job. Those are the times she becomes real.
The discussion on sexism, patriarchy, and women is pretty much right out there in this YA novel, which may surprise some readers. In this village, women who work? Are not respectable. Women who have opinions? Are not respectable? It's a woman's fault, if she lives alone. Only Married ladies are respectable - within the bounds of a marital relationship, where their husband can speak for and vouch for them. Unmarrieds aren't to be spoken to or look anyone in the eye - and the only color they can wear is gray. Strangers - people who are from elsewhere - the Unmarrieds and the poor are what can only be tangible proof of not living by the rules. The shocker is that though the men make the rules... the women live and die by them. (I wished very much that could have been explored just a bit more). The first half of the novel lays this stuff out -- and the reader soon catches on to the fact that only those within the system can change it. It's a clever ploy to get the reader hooked on thinking about it.
Valleys: If there's anything that caught my attention it was the lack of information on the three "enemies" in the novel: the Monsters, the Strangers and the heavy-handed religion which adds a burden to the lives of the villagers and offers no relief to anyone.
First, the religion: It's not that this doesn't reflect or parallel real life, not that there aren't awful interactions with religions -- the little detail on the church just served to make me curious about it. Suffering the fate of poverty or - the fate of being female - seems to be tangible proof of not living by the rules - and thus out of favor with the Lord. The Mayor always tells everyone, if people would just attend Defense every Sunday and listen to his rules on how to live, they would be shown favor, and live well. At least, it seems to work for him.I wondered, how did it start? Was it once a real faith? How did the Mayor become head of their non-religious "church?" (Or, maybe I'm from a country wherein the government leader isn't the head of the official State Church, and this is a stupid question. The author is from Australia, a Commonwealth country; Britain's Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Anglican church. Moving on.)
Next, I wondered about the Monsters and the Strangers. Without spoilers, you'll figure out who/what the Monsters are easily - they're not a great mystery - but I wondered at the history of their interactions with the village. I was deeply curious. What divided all of the villages into untrusting little burgs dotting a trade route? How did everyone become so divided? How did the Strangers come into the village if everyone eschewed travel because of the Monsters? And how, if they knew there were Monsters, did the villagers forget their Lore? These questions could actually have been answered with a sentence or two, and not knowing the answers didn't at all take away from my enjoyment of the novel... but they do prove that I have a bad case of Reader Greed, and I want to know ALLLL the things. This is a common failing when reading a good book.
Finally, I noted the lack of racial diversity in the novel. The descriptions of the characters in the novel make it clear that fair skin and blonde hair is still the beauty standard - the Doctor's daughter is attractive and well thought of - but there doesn't seem to be any other kind of beauty. This is, again, a tiny quibble - and more an encouragement: if one is going to write speculative fiction, please let's speculate a world where there is more than one color!
A surprise find with an excellent and professional appearance, this is a greatly enjoyable fairytale - it went down like a cold glass of lemonade on a humid day - quick and satisfying. I have the highest and best of hopes for this author, and expect to see more good things from her, in due time.
I received a promotional copy of this book, courtesy of the author. You can find THE EDGE OF THE WOODS by CEINWIN LANGLEY online, or at an independent bookstore near you!