The most overwhelming impression that Lisa Goldstein's new novel gives is one of familiarity. The fairy tale, retold, riffed on, changed around, or simply modernized, is one of the great standards of fantasy literature. At the moment, not one but two series on American television, Once Upon A Time and Grimm, are using the basic premise of fairy tale characters living in and interacting with the modern world. Fairies themselves, as distinct from other kinds of fairy tale personage, have appeared in many classics of the genre—everything from Hope Mirrlees's Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004). Any writer hoping to write about fairies, or to use the fairy tale as the root of a plot or as a theme or motif, is working in the shadow of a long and demanding tradition, comprising some of the strangest and most well-beloved works in speculative fiction. It's a sub-field in which it is rare to find anything really new, since there is a ready-made field of clichés such as the untrustworthy fairy bargain, the family curse, the ability of fairies to confuse the minds of humans, the borders between the worlds that begin to shift at liminal times and places, and the tension between the human desire for magic and the desire for a safe and comfortable life in the fields we know.
Goldstein does not move beyond these clichés, or reinterpret them significantly. Everything I mentioned in the previous sentence is a major element of her book; the work is named after the uncertain spaces in which one can cross into the fairy realms, the bits of confusion and changeability both in the world and in the mind of the protagonist.
Will Taylor, said protagonist, begins as a naïve college student in the Berkeley of the early seventies. His roommate introduces him to a girl, Livvy Feierabend, daughter of an unconventional and rich wine-making family in the hills of Napa. Their relationship is prospering when Livvy suddenly falls asleep and cannot be awakened. Her family, while distressed, are not surprised. It turns out that centuries ago in Germany they made an exchange (which they only ever call a bargain, although it also has resonances with the traditional fairy tithe or tribute to hell) with the fairy folk. In exchange for one girl in each generation of the family spending seven years asleep, the entire family has unchanging good luck, health, wealth, and love. The sleeping girl is referred to as a bondmaid to the otherworld, since while she sleeps her spirit goes to serve the fairies in some great and unending war they say they require assistance to win. Upon waking, she remembers only snatches of her experiences. The family has a fleet of fairy attendants to help enforce this bargain, some of which ensure their luck and make their lives easier (by, say, housecleaning), and others who are spies who prevent the family from reading fairy tales and magical lore and from working to try to break the bargain. Agents like this expunged the bondmaid story from the volumes of the Brothers Grimm and even, for a time, the very word "bondmaid" from the Oxford English Dictionary.
Will, unwilling to wait seven years for Livvy to wake, and versed in the stories of his own childhood, decides that the bargain must be broken, and in fact is able with some little trouble to break it. He then realizes that the rest of the family are not necessarily happy to lose their magically-induced good fortune, and that he himself has difficulty facing the idea of living a life in which anything could go wrong at any time, the way it can for most of humanity. The rest of the book is his continuous vacillation between wanting the magical protection to return, and not being willing to pay the price for it. He wants the luck without anyone having to sleep, or be rapt into the other world, for it.
Consequently, for much of the book Will comes across as monstrously selfish and deeply lacking in foresight. He doesn't seem to realize that when he cries out in a moment of panic that he was wrong to break the bargain, and then the calamity he is afraid of turns out to be dramatically lesser than he has feared, this means someone will fall asleep. He doesn't seem to ponder much whether the bargain is a fair one: he sees the price, and that it is painful, but he is never able to weigh the pain of that price against the pain of the uncertainties of the world; whenever he experiences one, he immediately decides that he prefers the other.
It's likely, of course, that this is intentional, and that Will's vacillation is meant to be a dramatization of the ways that people fail to cope with the problem of the existence of evil and possibly even an example of the ways that religion may or may not be a consolation. Certainly Will treats the fairies as if they were deities—his cry in that moment of panic is entirely internal, and he never seems to doubt that they can hear his innermost heart. However, the fact that there is no character who ever really considers the moral questions of the bargain in a rational way means that it's very difficult to tell whether the characters simply haven't considered the issues in question, or whether the author hasn't either.
And in the end, Will questions whether the breaking of the bargain has led to magic receding out of the world, meaning that he essentially blames himself for the (perceived) materialism and greed of the nineteen-eighties. The view of the sixties and early seventies as a time closer to magic, an Eden from which the protagonist has exiled himself due to his desire for security and his inability to closely ponder moral issues, is . . . well, just as clichéd as the rest of the novel. If he is intended to be sympathetic, therefore, Will looks like an idiot; if unsympathetic, the arc of the book tends toward bathos.
In addition, although Will is aware of feminism and the ongoing questions about the status of women in the times he is living through, and although the book explicitly mentions that the role of women in fairytales is passive and old-fashioned, Livvy is very thoroughly written out of her own story. She, the one who falls asleep, isn't the protagonist; she doesn't save herself, or try to. She marries Will unquestioningly afterward, and is described as having a sort of fairy-related post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes her quiet, unassuming, tentative, and frightened. As a result, her interiority fades from the reader's perspective, and, one suspects, from Will's; she isn't present for most of the major discoveries he makes about the history of her family, and he expresses frustration and confusion with her fear and with the concept that he doesn't really know her or what happened to her. A confrontation in the other realm with the Queen who is the director of the unending war is probably supposed to be the scene in which we see Livvy reclaiming her power and taking back agency, but by that point we have so little idea of what's been going on with her that it plays as a stock scene, Recovering From A Fear And Overcoming Things, to be followed by an easy self-actualization—it comes from nowhere, follows the template of this sort of scene very precisely, and then returns to nowhere. Again, if this is unintentional it's distressingly unoriginal, and if it is intentional, if the pointers to the ways that women are made passive in fairy tales are meant to indicate how thoroughly Will is making the woman he loves the most entirely passive in her own life, the resolution is still too much like too many other books to provide real certainty that this is meant to be ironic.
The scenes in the fairy realm, too, read exactly as many books have: a goblin market, exactly as in, for instance, Neil Gaiman's Stardust (1999); a war-that-isn't-a-war whose concept seems ripped directly from John Crowley's Little, Big (1981). There is so little sense of the numinous that it is difficult, in tone, to tell the scenes in fairyland from the scenes which take place in everyday reality. The prose is very flat, without much in the way of lyrical description, and the text seems uncertain which details it would like to emphasize—for instance, there is a scene in which Will breaks free of a fairy spell by getting someone to say his name unwittingly; he manipulates the conversation so that his name is the most logical thing for them to say as part of the rest of the sentence. But at that point his last name has only been mentioned one time in the text, more than a hundred pages earlier, and I had to page back and look it up to find out why he was so gleeful about the conversational exchange. On the other hand, there are a great many mentions of the plates and linens in Livvy's family house and the ways in which they don't match each other, a detail which has nothing whatever to do with the plot. (The house itself is also architecturally stolen from Little, Big. It may be symbolic of something that in the Crowley, the family lives in a house which has many architectural periods blended together, looks different from any angle, and contains rooms that don't really exist, while in the Goldstein the house is described a lot like Crowley's, but is really a lot of separate houses built next to each other and connected, completely mappable and not actually changing. This is reminiscent of the way in which her novel assembles the standard elements of its sub-genre next to one another without blending or amalgamating them.)
The Uncertain Places, then, while certainly ambitious, fails so completely that it's difficult to tell whether the author even intended to evoke the more complex aspects of the plot and situation, or whether those come entirely from readerly questioning—and then fail to do anything interesting, from lack of support by the text. At best the book is mildly entertaining, in some of the details of pseudo-scholarship surrounding the Brothers Grimm, a police statement about a fairy kidnapping from the Prohibition era, and other peripheral things. In the past, Goldstein's most interesting work, in books like Dark Cities Underground (1999), has exploited her ability to produce plausible fantastical extrapolations from real historical circumstances, and the bits of The Uncertain Places which do that are the bits which feel as though there may be some life to them. The rest of it is the literary equivalent of stock footage.
Lila Garrott's poetry and fiction have appeared in Not One of Us and Mythic Delirium, as well as other venues. She is currently engaged in a project in which she reads and reviews a book every day for a year, which can be followed at rushthatspeaks.livejournal.com or rushthatspeaks.dreamwidth.org. Her hair is blue and her eyes are brown.
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