Alice Hoffman’s Green Angel aroused decidedly mixed feelings in my bibliophilic breast. Written as a charity venture - a proportion of the profits went to the New York Women’s Foundation – it’s a beautifully produced little volume: sumptuous jacket illustration by Matt Mahurin married with A grade paper and double page chapter breaks. No doubt at all that Scholastic Press certainly did themselves proud with the presentation…shame that Hoffman’s content can’t match it. Oscillating wildly between sentimental Coelho-esque platitudes and quite striking natural imagery, it never quite made good on its magical realist premise.
Fifteen-year-old Green, a quiet child of nature, is left on her own when her family is lost in a terrible, apocalyptic disaster. (The exact nature of the catastrophe is never revealed but clearly represents a nuclear strike against a major American city.) Haunted by her loss and ghostly dreams of her sister Aurora she struggles to survive physically and emotionally on her family’s small-holding, a place left barren by the disaster. Green retreats inward, alienating herself from emotion and the plight of others in the outside world. Destabilizing and rebelling against her old identity (and her affinity with Nature) she embarks on a programme of physical alteration - shearing off her hair, ritually tattooing her body with ravens and bats and sewing thorns into her clothing - and renames herself Ashe. It is only through a series of mysterious encounters with a ghostly white dog, a crone-like neighbour and a mute boy named Diamond that she “relearns the lessons of love and begins to heal” (as the promo material puts it), finally transferring the ink from her body to the page in the cathartic act of autobiographical writing.
Hoffman’s conceit, of course, is that the novel’s narrative is Green’s own, but the serenity of her authorial voice and the banality of grief-and-loss-cliché kills any sense of real emotional immediacy. In the end its stylings consign it to the burgeoning ranks of “inspirational” literature, books earnestly attempting a confrontation with horror and loss but without any real bite…‘Tis a shame too because there is promise in the writing, especially the nature passages, and in the use of wisdom-literature tropes and symbologies.
Also disappointing this week was Deborah O’Keefe’s Readers in Wonderland: The Liberating Worlds of Fantasy Fiction. The title, condescending as it us, should have warned me away from this broad but shallow study of children’s fantasy literature. Although it purports to discuss the work of more than 80 authors and “show why their work has proved so compelling”, it turns out to be little more than a collection of thinly veiled personal anecdotes and quotations strung together with vast generalisations about children and reading. The writing is terminally bad and uninformative: take for example O’Keefe’s penetrating analysis of different narrative styles:
“No one type of storytelling voice is generally better than another; the storyteller simply needs to be right for the particular story.”
The research she has managed is glaringly patchy; she blithely parrots the theses of two studies of childhood and fairytale (Philippe Aries and Bruno Bettelheim), which have long been out of favour with both historians and literary critics. The remainder of her small secondary bibliography, mostly work from the 1960s and 70s of the psychoanalytical persuasion, is ill marshalled and jolts the flow of her otherwise conversational tone (which is annoying in and of itself). An academic publishing in 2004 should know better - the body of work on children's literature, and especially on children's fantasy literature. has grown vast in the last decade! What we learn about children’s fantasy is utterly basic: it’s types, it’s character tropes and a stab at identifying unifying thematics with no attempt at in depth commentary and absolutely no original conclusions. And why oh why did she forgo the glorious tradition of quotation marks in favour of block capital text? I’m afraid I’m photocopying the only useful section – the bibliography of notable children’s fantasy since 1950 – and banishing it to a dark corner of Oxfam.
The Only Places to Be:
Go! Frolic in amongst this year’s crop of Orange longlisters. I’ve got my eye on Disobedience by Naomi Alderman, the new Helen Dunmore and Lorraine Adams’ Harbor.
Sentient alien bushes anyone? I’ve been reading Amnesty, a short story by the late Octavia Butler and since its free so should you.
‘Tis good to see two lesbian authors in the top 20 of the Observer’s 50 “top players in the world of books”… Go Sarah and Val!