We’ve been told this tale before. A young girl about to enter into adulthood (she has just had her first period) ventures beyond prescribed boundaries and discovers another world, one that is exotic, erotic, and dangerous. Before she can return to our relatively safe and ordered world, something enters her body, a gift that is both frightening and exciting, and that is set to shape the woman she will become.
Oh, it’s a familiar enough tale: the metaphor for growth, for puberty, for sexualization, that has formed the core of far too many fantasy novels. But this is Lisa Goldstein, and the coming-of-age metaphor is dealt with in the first chapter. Because what concerns us here, what always concerns us in any Lisa Goldstein novel, is not the tale but the telling. Ivy, of course, has to pay a price for venturing into that other world, that disturbing and adult place, but it is not a cost incurred by that commonplace experience of getting older, but rather by what can and cannot be said about the experience.
The wood beyond which Ivy ventures surrounds the remote cottage of her Great Aunt Maeve. Forty years before, under her real name, Adela Madden, Maeve had published a fantasy novel called Ivory Apples. It had been a publishing sensation, remaining constantly in print right around the world and inspiring an army of obsessive fans who believed that the enchanting Pommerie Town, where the novel was set, was a real place, a place that could put them in touch with real magic. When she wanders beyond the wood, Ivy enters, just for a moment, into the world of Ivory Apples.
But the response to her novel had frightened Adela. She had stopped writing, changed her name to Maeve Reynolds, and, like a cross between Hope Mirrlees and J. D. Salinger, had withdrawn to this remote home. Ivy, with her father, Philip, and her younger sisters, Beatriz, Amaranth, and Semiramis, is part of Maeve’s defence mechanism. Philip handles her business affairs and takes care of the incessant mountains of post (because, for the fans, Adela Madden’s mysterious disappearance has only heightened their interest), while the sisters have learned that they must never say anything about Maeve to anyone. This constant secrecy means that Ivy has no one with whom to discuss her experiences in the other world; or, more pertinently, the trickster figure that has lodged inside her, whom she has named Piper, and who can trigger wild and unpredictable behaviours.
Late in the novel we learn that two of the Greek Muses have been kidnapped and brought to America, with many of their siblings and children following in their wake. They have made their home in a fold in reality accessed through the woodland that surrounds Maeve’s home. Maeve was taken over by one of the most powerful of these muses when she was writing Ivory Apples, and Pommerie Town, in which the novel is set, is part of this realm of the muses. But the power of this influence terrified Maeve, and she contrived to trap her own muse within Pommerie Town, though its loss has diminished her ever since.
Ivy has accidentally found her way into this realm at the start of the novel, where Piper is one of the lesser muses. As he leads her into mischief and risk he also inspires her to start writing poetry. In a novel about the telling of tales, it is interesting that Goldstein has chosen to identify the muse with the trickster. Piper is Pan (this is never explicit in the text, but it is surely implicit in the name), and his creativity comes with wildness, madness, and peril. As Maeve says at one point: “Art isn’t decorous … it’s messy and dangerous, it takes you to frightening places” (p. 122).
The real danger, however, comes not from the art but from the artless, from those who, vampirelike, seek to feed on the creator. Enter the villain of the piece: Kate Burden.
Ms Burden, as Ivy consistently refers to her, maintaining a polite distance, appears first in the local park, befriending Ivy’s younger sisters with games, smiles, and soft words. Ivy is instantly suspicious (it is never entirely clear whether this suspicion comes from Piper, or from Ivy herself), but can find nothing objective upon which to base that suspicion. Meanwhile, Kate ingratiates herself with the family, gets invited home to dinner, becomes a regular visitor, and surreptitiously searches the house as well as pumping the girls for information about Adela Madden. To no avail, as silence on that score has become ingrained within the family. But Kate cannot give up; she is in the grip of an obsession as wild and as all-consuming as Piper’s grip on Ivy. She contrives Philip’s death, forges his will, and finagles her way to being declared the girls’ guardian. Now her hunt is unrestrained: she bribes and tortures the girls, and sets them against each other until Ivy, at the promptings of Piper, runs away.
There follows a period in which Ivy lives on the street. This passage is not exactly sanitized, but neither is it quite as gritty and horrifying as the reality would probably be. It is here that Ivy becomes a sexual being, and also where she becomes a poet, though any connection between the two is no more than coincidence. But it is now that Ivy becomes an adult and learns to work more effectively with Piper, and as she starts to learn about the muses, about Kate, and about Ivory Apples, so she is better placed to make use of this new knowledge. When she returns home, it is to discover that Kate has kidnapped the younger girls and is holding them prisoner with some crude magics she has learned. With help from Piper, Ivy is able to face her down, enough to help the girls escape, but she subsequently and inadvertently leads Kate first to Maeve and then to Pommerie Town, where the final confrontation must inevitably take place.
Ivory Apples is a fascinating work because it is about storytelling, yet it paints a far from rosy picture of the art. The muses are cruel, violent, unwelcome beings, and they inflict a burden (the name is very carefully chosen) upon both those who accept a muse and those who crave one. In the three women at the heart of the story, we see Maeve whose muse was far too strong for her, who therefore rejects the muse and whose life is thereafter diminished. On the other hand, Kate desires access to the muses and will commit any evil to achieve that desire, but it hollows her out. While Ivy achieves a sort of balance with Piper, needing him, feeling lessened when he is absent and her ability to write poetry is diminished, but also domesticating him, losing some of the perhaps necessary wildness. Approaching this conflict at something of a remove, these three older women are mirrored by the three younger sisters. Beatriz, the second sister, is happy to be ordinary, to have nothing to do with the muses. Semiramis, the youngest, is a painter who enjoys contact with the muses without actually taking one into herself, content to develop her own minor talent. But the middle sister of the three, Amaranth, craves a muse as Kate does, though when she temporarily takes in Piper she is unable to handle it and ends up severely damaged by the experience.
Of course, it is quite easy to read this as a novel about the desire to have direct access to the magical worlds we discover in books. Do we not wish to visit Lud-in-the-Mist or make a journey from Hobbiton or wander the streets of Pommerie Town? But we do not belong there, as readers or as authors. There is something much darker going on here: inspiration is a curse and creativity a burden. It is not in the end a very comforting tale about telling.