We begin, as we must since the work so pointedly, so nakedly, concerns the power (or otherwise) of words, with language.
"The language we speak and the language we write are two entirely different things" (p. 336), Shimon Adaf tells us in this novel. Well, yes, but even that is putting it simplistically. Language is the most subtle and the most supple tool we have at our disposal. We use essentially the same vocabulary for a host of different jobs from writing songs to writing business reports, from appealing to the emotions to engaging the intellect. We create worlds and express our failure to describe this one all with the same equipment. But the way we use language does differ markedly depending on what it is we are attempting to do.
Shimon Adaf is a poet who also writes novels. In fact he appears to have written twice as many novels as he has poetry collections, but you are not many pages into Sunburnt Faces before you realize that he is more poet than novelist. A poem and a novel are two very different uses of language. The one freights each word with meaning to concentrate the image; the other opens up spaces between the words. There are passages in this novel where Adaf allows no space between the words, where no noun is without at least one adjective, where every verb has an attendant adverb, where we see the language far more than we see what the language is trying to tell us. Moreover, particularly in the early chapters of the novel, he has a habit of interrupting himself mid-sentence to provide a long expository passage, so that by the time the sentence resumes we can’t always remember how it started. It takes time to get the rhythm of this, which is a pity since there are things happening early in the novel that would have benefited from clearer exposition. Nevertheless, we do soon enough get into the pattern of the words, or perhaps Adaf simply stops trying to load onto them more baggage than prose can comfortably bear. (Though not entirely: when we are told, for instance, that our heroine "could no longer bear the anguish she felt, so she minimized her already laconic sentences" [p. 313], we can't help noting that that sentence itself is far from laconic.)
Either way, the prose needs all the help it can get if we are to see through to what Adaf is telling us. So it is a real problem that the book is littered with extraneous words, unnecessary thats and thans scattered across the pages. They read as though someone had started a sentence then, halfway through, changed their mind about where it should go without turning back to check that the whole still made sense. I did wonder whether this fault lay with the translation from the original Hebrew, by Margalit Rodgers and Anthony Berris, but given the other errors (closing quotation marks consistently used to open quotations), I suspect it is actually poor proof reading.
Given all of this, it is hard at first to get a handle on the novel. And since it is published by PS and comes with a laudatory introduction by Lavie Tidhar, one tends to look for elements of fantasy manifesting themselves, but that is to misinterpret the book. This is not a novel of the fantastic, though it is a novel about the fantastic.
The first half of the novel is the story of a twelve-year-old growing up in a small Israeli town. It is a not unusual story of bullying and unlikely friendships and finding escape in the pages of a fantasy novel, though there are oddities that give us pause. We learn, most significantly, that before the novel opens she had refused to speak for a period, but in the opening pages she hears sonorous words—"Rise, Ori, my light, for your light has come" (p. 12)—uttered on late night television. She decides this is the voice of God (it turns out to be a passage from the Bible; similar quotations from the prophets recur throughout the first part of the novel) and instantly starts to speak once more. There is no clear explanation of why she fell silent—"She had forgotten how to speak" (p. 15)—but that isn't really what is significant, it is rather that the return of words establishes the theme of the novel. And it is the return of words that is important rather than the association with God, who quickly drops out of the picture. As a result of this incident, though Adaf's sometimes convoluted manner can at times make the chronology hard to follow, she decides that her name is now Ori.
Back in school, Ori seems to have incurred the enmity of the class bully, launching a series of torments that are made worse when her one-time best friend joins the enemy camp. (The bullying was one of several aspects of this novel that unexpectedly seemed to echo Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being , though in Ozeki's novel the bullying is both more extreme and somehow more matter of fact.) Ori seems to be perfectly capable of fighting back, but retreats into an alliance with two other class outcasts, the weedy boy, Ophir, and the fat girl, Sigal. During the course of the year, the three friends experiment with hypnotism, Ophir is hospitalized after a vicious attack, Ori's mother contracts what will prove to be a fatal disease (and which, significantly, she refuses to talk about), and on a school trip into the desert Ori experiences some sort of epiphany. But the most important thing that happens is that Ori discovers a series of fantasy novels about Ariella, the Fairy Detective, written by someone called Prospero Juno. What we learn of the stories shows them to be fairly generic: a young girl from our world is transported into a wonderland where she proves to be the heroine necessary to heal the world. They do not map onto Ori's experiences, they do not impinge upon her world, there is no connection between fantasy and reality, but they prove to be her way of coping with what threatens and disturbs her life.
The second half of the novel is set twenty years later. Ori is now 32, married with a daughter of her own, and a successful author of fantasy novels for children. We see in this section the effects of what she read and what was said in the first half of the novel. Other than writing, she seems to be losing the power of words. When her husband, Barak, starts a political discussion group, her immediate response is: "What good will talk do?" (p. 390). When there is trouble in her marriage, she retreats into silence, unable or unwilling to articulate her feelings. When her old school friend, Sigal, writes to her out of the blue, she does not respond. If the first half of the novel showed her gaining strength through words, the second half shows her becoming weaker through the loss of words. The most telling symbol of this comes when it is suggested that neither the Ariella stories nor Prospero Juno ever actually existed, that there were no words helping her through her childhood. This idea of novels that never existed is actually the most fantastical thing in this book, but Adaf does nothing with it; the idea just fades away.
In the midst of all of this we are given an essay that Ori writes, "The Gates to Wonderland: Seven Annotations"; it is the key to the novel and the clearest expression we could desire that this is not a fantasy but a book about fantasy. It is Ori's (and, presumably, Adaf's) analysis of the four foundational texts of the wonderland story in Western literature: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan. It explores why these works all have a female protagonist, Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy, and, moreover, a girl just on the brink of puberty. In this analysis, the wonderland is the revelation of adulthood, as Ori puts it: "In the distance looms the inevitable trinity—sex, death, meaning. The revelation will divide her life into 'up to now'—consuming longing, and 'from now on'—anxious anticipation" (p. 307). That is a schema that clearly describes this novel: the consuming longing of Ori as a twelve-year-old, already beset by the damage that life can inflict, and the anxious anticipation of 32-year-old Ori watching life break apart towards its inevitable decline. But for Ori there is no Wonderland except in her imagination, in the novels of Prospero Juno, whether they be real or not. And in that imagination, there is nothing that will fit her for what comes after the revelation.
Appropriately, the novel ends with a story of Ariella, the Fairy Detective, written by Ori. Clearly we are meant to read into this something about the adult Ori, so it is worth noting that Ariella herself barely appears in the story. She has been imprisoned by a spell, and for the first half of the story we follow others as they work to release her. Once she has been freed, they go off to confront the deep, dark nemesis that is obviously adulthood, and Ariella voluntarily enters a new and permanent imprisonment. If the early Ariella stories presented an image of freedom to the young Ori, this is exactly the opposite.
If all of this makes me sound ambivalent about the book, so be it. There are parts of the book that are superb. I found the way that the essay about Wonderland mapped on to Ori's childhood both intellectually and emotionally satisfying, the sense of longing for Wonderland but the eventual refusal of fantasy works well. Yet there is too much in the book that is raised but not pursued: the sequence of Bible quotes, the hint that the Ariella books never existed, so that you wonder why they might be there at all. And the writing is uneven, too densely wordy in places where it needs to be more spare, not helped by a lamentable carelessness somewhere in the publishing process.
Paul Kincaid has received both the BSFA Non-Fiction Award and the Thomas D. Clareson Award. His latest collection of essays and reviews, Call and Response, is forthcoming from Beccon Publications.