Rye is a homeless synaesthetic amnesiac recently discharged from a seven-week stay in hospital. Her doctors are at a loss to explain her third and most visible condition—ugly lesions across her body which routinely bleed and cause her pain. Released into a city she does not recognise or very much like, Rye acts younger than her years and has not a friend in the world. She has trouble analysing people and their motives, stumbles from one confusion to the next, and is plagued by horrifying, violent dreams. She hallucinates in broad daylight. She is the unknowing prize in a race across three worlds to secure a power so important that it could bring victory to either side in an old and bitter war. Those closest to her may be more interested in politics and war than their friend's welfare. She is, then, a little girl irrevocably lost.
Rye has our sympathy. But, in the course of Holly Phillips's debut novel, The Burning Girl, the reader has difficulty ever really caring.
As in some of the tales which comprised her much lauded short story collection, In The Palace of Repose, Phillips starts her novel with the familiar, quotidian world—a grimy urban landscape we recognise—but underpins it with a sense of reality tipping towards something stranger. Rye's nightmares are vague and repulsive, hinting at something grotesquely awful in the shadows. The novel's purpose is, in essence, to explain those dreams, and also Rye herself: where do those lesions come from, what can't she remember, and why can she not remember it? Who is this young woman, and why does she recognise strangers?
In an interview with Strange Horizons last year, Phillips expressed enthusiasm for stories which do not quite stand alone—not so much the middle book in a trilogy as a slice from the never-ending narrative of a soap opera. She argued that it is a good thing in fiction when the story and its characters appear to have more to tell, as if their lives stretch out before and beyond the current tale. The Burning Girl plays with this conceit, beginning where another story ends. After a few weeks drifting without aim or purpose, Rye meets a man from her past, Daniel Bardo, and begins to collect facts about her old life, in which she was intimately involved in the fight against a sort of expeditionary force from another world. The course of Rye's story becomes clear—to make sense of herself, she must explore another story.
To lock a narrative so closely and explicitly into an untold prequel is an ambitious strategy, and Rye's amnesia provides the reader an excuse for confusion. It also provides the writer an excuse for endless expository dialogue. Dialogue is The Burning Girl's curse and cure: characters must sit down and tell Rye about her mysterious past, explain to her the truth of her existence and afflictions. Rye must sit and listen. She must then listen to other versions of the same story and identify the omissions and the elaborations. This is a story about a young woman beginning to understand her world and her friends, but its constructions and conceits render it strangely plotless. The Burning Girl's narrative thrust is merely the revelation of another, more active, narrative.
The novel therefore quickly becomes oddly static, despite its numerous changes of scene. Perhaps this is because Phillips neglects to give her separate environments much in the way of a physical identity—beyond the usual ambiguously sinister and faintly feudal lordlings, foreign lecixa, and strange cultures of absurd mysticism, this is a fantasy without a real sense of place. It is at times almost Burroughsian in its strangely under-developed idea of what is "alien": the worlds and their cultures are important only in so far as they solve the novel's puzzles, and otherwise the alien remains surprisingly uninteresting. Rye and Bardo skip between worlds, factions, and buildings, but the reader never gets a sense that very much changes, with the verbose exception of what the characters are saying about it.
Fortunately, the principal characters are at least fairly drawn. There is something of the trowel and the cliché to them—Rye, as already pointed out, is so over-burdened as to somehow lessen the impact of any one of her problems, whilst Bardo is a charming, confident, furtive ex-cop with a guilty secret. They and the supporting cast act their roles well and consistently, but actors they largely remain. Perhaps this is deliberate: all the characters are so interested with who they were or who they could be that the present slips through their fingers. Everyone in The Burning Girl defines themselves in terms of a point in time which is emphatically not now, and each to one extent or another is wandering lost as a consequence.
This is an interesting idea, but for a novel about self-discovery Phillips's epiphanies are so terrifically slow in coming that their arrival gives the reader a feeling akin to the one we experience when our train pulls into the station three hours late. That fatal lack of plot holds every line of the book in a mortifying grip. Perhaps in a novel with zestier characters or more lively environments we would forgive this lack of pace, this absence of dynamic plotting. As it is, the reader grows tired of the endless conversations taking place within what sometimes feels like a narrative bell jar. There is no story here, only the consequences of one.
And yet Phillips is not entirely lost. Her prose is regularly rewarding, though sometimes frustratingly reliant on a few choice similes (the tastes of daisies and copper, the smells of sex and blood). It infuses the novel with a kind of sleaziness, and much of the action is overtly sexualised, mirroring Rye's awkward and fearful stumbles into womanhood, but also echoing the book's recurrent theme of couples and coupling. Trust is in short supply in this novel—everyone has a bluff and a double-bluff in constant readiness—but it remains nevertheless darkly fascinated by the importance and joy of the most intimate of human relationships, from the sexual to the maternal and filial. The Burning Girl doesn't decide for us whether this interest is a sort of hope or a fatal attraction, but in reading it the reader cannot turn away from the question.
Phillips's writing, then, continues to offer much promise. At times she tries too hard, but at her best she is able to link content and style into a mutually reinforcing poetic bond. Unfortunately for The Burning Girl, the prose on show here falls back a little too often on its favourite words, constructions, and phrases.
And perhaps this is the novel's ultimate problem—it over-reaches. Its ideas are sound, but its execution cannot properly serve them. In examining how the traditionally epic stories of fantasy must by their very nature incur subjective and no less traumatic, if smaller-scale, effects, Phillips attempts to ask us questions about personal relationships and identity, about self-definition and sex. But, ultimately, she fails to introduce enough sparkle to detract from the essentially plotless proceedings. The Burning Girl is a voyage of rediscovery as much as self-discovery; its characters go through the motions, and those motions are too often formulaically described. The novel reminded me in many ways of Justina Robson's Living Next-Door to the God of Love, another ambitious novel about relationships and personality which failed to engage where its plot flagged. In the final analysis, the strategies The Burning Girl hopes will mitigate its inherent weaknesses fall short of success, and the novel fails to enchant or involve the reader.
But Holly Phillips is no little girl lost, and she will some day soon find herself a story well worth the telling.
Dan Hartland is a British writer of various words, of which some are occasionally about science fiction. He retains a perspective decidedly outside of the genre, one which could conveniently be described as well-wishing frustration. He awaits the day he can do this for a living and copy-write for fun.