You have never heard a story quite like this one. I can hear you protesting already but, the fact is, it doesn't matter how old you are, how many books you've read, how many things you've seen . . . this story will be new to you. Maybe it will even haunt you a little. Because what happened to me . . . well, I don't think it's ever happened before . . .
Don't read this book unless you mean to finish it.' (p.1)
Jasmyn's husband Liam dies unexpectedly and she is left alone with her grief and self-pity. Friends and family try to break through her shell of despair. In the end, though, what brings her out of her fugue is a series of strange events that insist upon happening: dead swans fall from the sky at Liam's funeral; in her wedding photos Jasmyn discovers she's been replaced by another woman (or rather a Jasmyn who is desperately screaming rather than smiling happily); her house is broken into; a mysterious horse and rider follow her to her grandparents' country house; and Jasmyn senses she is being watched.
In order to work out what is going on Jasmyn reluctantly joins forces with her much-disliked brother-in-law, Ben. They travel to Germany and the fairytale castle of the mad King Ludwig, Neuschwanstein ('New Swan Stone') to investigate what part fairyland, swan maidens, stolen brides and magic play in the tale.
Fairytales are a rich well in which to dip: they give writers so much to work with and a skilled author (like Kelly Link or Aimee Bender) can make an incredible new mix with the elements on offer. When you transfer a fairytale to a modern setting you also get a chance to create something astonishing by juxtaposing old and new.
In Jasmyn, Alex Bell offers a new take on the gothic fairytale, and deserves credit for mixing a lot of disparate elements to create an interesting redux. There is an exciting story here. And yet, this was a difficult book to review. I felt myself torn between wanting to see what would happen next, and being so overwhelmed by problems with the writing that I just wanted to put the book down and walk away.
Bell is fond of long sentences, but often their rhythms ring false. In many cases, sentences are overstuffed, made longer than they need to be with unnecessary words. Elsewhere, words are repeated. A couple of examples: on page 8 we're told three times over the course of five lines that Ben and Liam are "similar", and on p.14, we're told again that they're "heart-breakingly similar"; on p. 15 we read four times that Jasmyn thinks the hospital is calling to tell her they've made a terrible mistake; and Bell is evidently very fond of the words "suddenly" and "sudden", which crop up with distracting frequency, appearing five times in the space of four pages (pp. 26-29), and making regular appearances every few pages throughout the novel.
Information is often repeated, as well. We're told over and again that Jasmyn's albinism causes her to be stared at; how much she misses Liam (I've looked at my notes and by page thirty-nine I've written in frustration on the top of the page 'Okay, we get it, she misses him!'); that Liam and Ben weren't on the best of terms in the past year; that the Ice Hotel in Sweden is made of, and filled with items made of, ice; that the Paris Catacombs are filled with bones; that King Ludwig was a gentle dreamer with a sad life; that the electric violin is silver and blue and was a Christmas gift from Liam; and that Ben's boot destroys the violin. It is all wearying, and sometimes feels patronising.
The balance of the story is also off: while unimportant information is often belaboured, when magical things happen no-one questions them. There is often no explanation or background or foreshadowing for some admittedly wonderfully fantastical elements. Magic must have a logic, or at least some limits, but one gets the sense that the magic wand is pulled out whenever things get too hard. A big deal is made of the idea of 'fairyland' bordering the real world, but we see very little of this place. It only really appears in the literary corner of the reader's eye– I found this annoying because it felt like there was a story happening 'off-camera' that had bearing on the novel but was never satisfactorily shown—it made me want more that was not forthcoming.
Then there are things like Jasmyn continuing to complain about how she's worried about the amount of money she's spending and yet she goes and pays two hotel bills, complains again about money, and then heads off to eat out. It's an idea that's mentioned over and over and yet it doesn't go anywhere. Jasmyn herself doesn't seem to have a job, although she does play the violin, and it's never quite clear what Liam does for a living. He's a fan of folklore and seems to have written books on the subject, but we don't ever learn if he's a lecturer or teacher or a fulltime writer. It almost feels as if these characters exist in a vacuum.
Another problem is that Jasmyn is not a sympathetic character. While a character doesn't necessarily need to be sympatheic or likeable, a character really does need to engage with the reader so that one is interested in finding out what happens to that character. The people around her try to help but she is quite determined to wallow in her misery. Maybe she should be allowed to, given the circumstances, but the this is a first-person narrative, with the consequent the risk of falling over the line and making the main character self-obsessed and, well, whiney. Jasmyn never thinks of anyone but herself and her own grief, and so the reader's empathy does not engage.
By the end of the book, several mysteries are left unanswered—unfortunately, they are ones that have been made a big deal of in the text, as though the resolution of these subplots will feed into the resolution of the main plot. For example, precisely what did happen to King Ludwig? His apparent suicide is set up to lead further but it disappears from the tale. His story with the swan maiden and its ending are left dangling. The problem of what happens with one of the characters who turned into a swan knight is never addressed—what are the consequences when he tries to go back to his human life and love? How does Jasmyn go back to her life when she realises that she's lived a lie for the last year, one that has alienated many of her friends? These are all story arcs that are left hanging and they render this tale unsatisfactorily told.
I wanted to be kind to this book. In fact, when I got the ARC and started reading it, I ended up putting off writing this review until I could get a copy of the final version. I thought "Surely this stuff will be cleared up there—an editor will have done what an editor is wont to do." Alas, no; all those same problems remain. It does have some great images and ideas: the dead swans falling out of the sky at the funeral; the use of the Ice Palace as a place that is on the border of fairyland and a place where cross-overs can occur; the moment when the sculpture in the cemetery becomes animate, the haunting appearances of a circle of bones provides some creepy moments. Jasmyn is a different kind of fairytale, with some clever uses of the tropes and themes of the genre; but for me it was too careless to captivate.
Angela Slatter is a Brisbane-based writer. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Shimmer, Jack Dann's Dreaming Again, Tartarus Press' Strange Tales II, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and The Lifted Brow.
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