Thursday, March 12, 2009

Book: The Onion Girl

(What? I did say I might post a book review...)

Oh, goodness. Falling so head over heels for Charles de Lint books right now. This has been my favorite so far.

Jilly Coppercorn, artist and former street urchin, has been badly injured by a hit-and-run. As she lays in her hospital bed, her friends are pulling out all the stops in their own ways to help bring her back to health. Jilly is one of those people who can't help but make friends everywhere she goes, so thankfully she has a lot of friends to help her pull through. Friends in this world, and in the dreamword (otherwise known as Faery).

As the extent of her injuries become known (including partial paralysis), she learns that the only way she will be able to fully heal is if she heals those long-hidden hurts within -- the ones she's been running from her entire life. The ones that initially led her down the path of drug addiction and prostitution, the ones that leave an aching hole in her heart. She and her sister are Children of the Secret -- victims of child abuse.

And what of this little sister she left behind when she finally ran away from the horrors at home? Raylene didn't follow the same path as Jilly. Raylene turned to violence, and deceit, and her soul turned black and hard. Raylene, and her best pal Pinky, cut a swath of trashy con games, theft, violence and even murder as they travel around, looking for the next easy target. And through it all, a red rage burns in Raylene against her older sister who abandoned her when Jilly left home. Abandoned her to suffer the same abuses that Jilly suffered. And now, Raylene swears, Jilly will pay.

In the meantime, Jilly has discovered that she can travel to the Dreamland in her dreams -- a real place, where the gods live, where we all have our heart homes (the place we feel most at home at, in all the world), where fairies come from, where magic exists. Jilly becomes torn between wanting to stay in the Dreamland where she is whole and healthy, and trying to heal The Broken Girl, back in the hospital, unable to feed herself, to say nothing of hold a pencil again. What will Jilly decide?

This was so tenderly written, but not at all sappy. Ugliness and harshness were alive through the pages, rage and bitter hurts, bad decisions, unrequited love, terrible crimes. But also, friendship and loyalty, and hope and bravery. All woven together in a beautiful story of the past rushing up to meet the present, and how those dark things we all hide away, can come back to haunt you when you least expect it.

Something I really enjoyed was how characters in this book kind of mirrored bits of American Gods -- perhaps surprisingly. It was a fun surprise realizing that I already knew who Whiskey Jack was, and a few other minor gods and deities that popped up in this book and also in American Gods.

At one point, Jilly is frantically climbing a magical tree in the Dreamlands, trying to reach the top. Her friend asks her what's her hurry? She says, "I'm just trying not to think. If I'm concentrating on hand- and foot-holds, I don't have room for anything else in my head." Her friend says, "It doesn't go away just because you're not thinking about it."

So how do we make these things go away? We can't. We can only integrate them, work through them, come to peace with them. Sometimes in unexpected ways.

The best part is, there's sort of a sequel to this book, unlike most Charles de Lint books, which have been written in such a way that you can jump in anywhere. So next, I'm reading Widdershins, which continues this story of Jilly's healing. I can't wait! I have lots of other books waiting to be read, but I have to first find out what happens with Jilly.


Eva said...

The first de Lint book I read was Widdershins-it was great! Now that I'm working my way through the series in order, I have a ways before The Onion Girl. But I'm glad it's so good!

Nymeth said...

Sadly I didn't enjoy this one as much as I was hoping to :( I think it was because it was my introduction to Newford... there were so many characters, and I knew nothing about them. I felt a little lost. I bet I'll appreciate it more if I return to it after reading the earlier books.

Miss D. said...

My first de Lint book was The Little Country, and I thought it was wonderful. Later on I read The Blue Girl, which is a Newford book but was totally fine as a stand-alone. I found that reading the short story collection "Dreams Underfoot" really helped orient me to Newford, because it put Memory and Dream, which I also already read, in context, and then made it very easy to leap into The Onion Girl, because I already knew so much of what was being referenced. And now I'm reading Widdershins and it's going very well. I can see how The Onion Girl would not be the best book to jump in on...

Carl V. said...

I predict, with no worries about being wrong, that you will love the heck out of Widdershins. It was my first de Lint book and I loved it. I've loved many of his books since, but not as much as that first one. Widdershins is amazing, I'm excited for you that you have yet to experience it.

Susan said...

I've been reading de Lint for 20 years now, and he's been one of my favourite authors since I discovered him. I love his blending of art and myth, fantasy and reality, in a real world, with faery and native mythology. He always makes me want to write, when I'm reading him! I really enjoyed the Onion Girl and how he handled the themes of abuse and running away, and that you can't run away after all. Lovely review!