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To Catch A Moon coverRym Kechacha’s sophomore novel, To Catch a Moon, defies easy categorization. It stands somewhere at the intersection of fantasy, myth, and historical fiction, but in truth such a description fails to capture its essential strangeness. The book is unusual, and often confusing, but also stunningly wrought. To appreciate its dreamlike narrative on its own terms, it is perhaps best to approach the novel as a companion piece to the art that inspired it: the paintings of twentieth-century Surrealist Remedios Varo. Put shortly, To Catch a Moon is, at its core, a work of fan fiction.

Without some awareness of the life and work of Remedios Varo, Kechacha’s novel is close to inscrutable. For this reason, this piece will join To Catch a Moon in its existence as a companion to Varo’s paintings: it will be part review, part reading guide.

First, it is helpful to know something of Varo’s biography. Born in Spain in 1908, she lived through three wars. She was a double refugee: after fighting in the Spanish Civil War, she escaped to Paris; after imprisonment in France, she escaped to Mexico City. More often than not, men served as her means of egress. So she married, separated, took lovers, remarried, all the while keeping her former lovers as friends. Despite her reliance on men, Varo forged her closest bonds with two other women, Leonora Carrington and Kati Horna, who, like her, were refugees, artists, and activists. Using Surrealist games like Exquisite Corpse, Varo and her friends conceived a shared well of imagination, from which their individual artworks drew. In To Catch a Moon, Rym Kechacha joins their creative sorority by drawing from that same well.

The novel’s frame narrative begins in Varo’s kitchen in Mexico City in 1955. As Varo sits in contemplation of the moon, her friend Leonora enters, arms full of herbs she’s collected from the brujas (witches) at the mercado (market). Although it’s easy to breeze through, this scene actually demands careful attention: it’s the cypher through which the entire rest of the novel becomes legible. As Remedios and Leo talk, their conversation fills the room with spells, spirit quests, tarotic divination, astrological inspiration, and, above all, myth. Together, the women chisel a question: “What if,” the fictional Varo asks, “the moon must give up her daughters and send them to earth so they can write books that tell the story of the world and everything that happens in it?” This question then forms a storyworld, its metaphysics dictated by an ancient contract between thirteen masculine earth spirits and the mother moon. In this universe, the moon’s daughters create the world and the earth’s sons control it.

To the extent that Varo and Leo’s freely flowing conversation is open, participatory, and vital, it is also domestic. Within the walls of Varo’s home, time and space expand into the infinite, but the reality of the historical Varo’s world was one in which such expansive womanhood would have been delimited by the written and unwritten contracts of the modern patriarchy. The women’s dialogue is collaborative, but their shared imagination turns toward the contractual. In this way, the conversation reveals the tension between these two oppositional modes of negotiation. Where collaboration creates, contracts restrict. Where collaboration is feminine, contracts are masculine. The conflict between these oppositional modes drives the novel’s dramatic arc, which is one that demonstrates time and again how the magic of companionship pushes against both social and metaphysical boundaries.

For the fictional Varo, as for the historical one, the art she shares with her friends reaches through the mechanisms of confinement and stretches toward the infinite. In interviews and essays, Kechacha describes the story of To Catch a Moon as one which threads together several of Varo’s paintings. She explains that the novel “came from the charged space between the paintings themselves and the peculiar ways they hooked into my imagination and made themselves at home.” She adds, “I didn’t make any of this up. Remedios did.” Putting Kechacha’s humble veneration of Varo to the side, I propose an amendment to the claim: neither she nor Varo made it up; instead, the novel represents the fruit of a sororal partnership between four women across three-quarters of a century.

Embroidering the Earth's mantle by Remedios VaroKechacha specifically locates the novel’s conceptual origin in Remedios Varo’s 1961 painting Bordanda el Mantro Terrestre (Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle). The piece is the central panel of Varo’s autobiographical triptych, the midpoint of a story told in images. With Varo’s trademark color palette—warm yellows, oranges, and burgundies setting off cooler grays, blues, and purples—the painting appears to emit a glow. It weaves a story of captivity and impending freedom. In it, a masked and hooded man stands in a windowless room atop a tall tower. He holds a book in one hand and stirs a cauldron with the other. Behind this man, a shrouded flautist recedes into shadow; around him, six identical yellow-haired girls sit at sewing desks. They face away from the man and from one other, forbidden the communion that might liberate their imaginations, if not their bodies. In the painting, the girls are pulling translucent thread from the man’s cauldron, with which they embroider a golden fabric, which pours from the tower to blanket the lands below.

Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle captures a creation myth of a world in which the meeting of music, text, and textile sow the seeds of existence. Notably, it is also a gendered myth: the man’s pointed hood and erect stance mimic the phallic shape of the tower; while the girls’ embroidered fabric billows in labial folds out of slits in the battlement. It’s also a tale of rebellion: under the man’s disciplinary gaze, one girl, with a sly side-eye, sews her escape. In the third and final painting of the triptych, we find her with a lover, who flies her from her perch out into the world she’s embroidered. Like her creator, she’s a refugee. Like Varo, art and romance represent her means of escape.

Through Kechacha, the world inspired by Varo’s creation myth continues to evolve even sixty years later. Kechacha populates this world with a range of bizarre characters, avoiding, with small exceptions, any genre-typical fantasy tropes. You will not find ogres, princesses, warriors, or sorcerers. There are witches, but they’re unlike any you will have encountered elsewhere, each one with “scarlet hair the colour of blood that falls to her ankles in shimmering waves, and a face the shape of an egg turned on its side [and skin] the colour of the sky on a soft summer dawn.”

Narrated in close third person, the book’s chapters are organized by alternating characters: a star-child, weaving the world from a tower; her earthly captors, the thirteen masculine earth spirits; a lion made of leaves; a friend of the moon’s daughter. What holds the novel together is the love story of Alissa, the star-child descended from owls, whose navel sprouts feathers, and who, at the outset of the tale, is imprisoned in the tower from Varo’s painting.

Within the tower, Alissa spends nearly all her waking moments embroidering the patterns that her male guardian, Mandoré, calls out from his mysterious books. One day, a sound penetrates the parapet: “The sweet lilt of music, a snatch of flute or pipe that trills a few notes of a song and then stops.” Kechacha permits the sound to penetrate our senses along with Alissa’s: “Like a wren warbling before the rain falls. It lasts no more than a second, it is just a momentary falter in the usual hush of the tower, but it snares her completely.” The music sends Alissa into a reverie, in which state, without thinking, she sews something new into her silk—chaos, in the form of a juggler, released into the tapestry of the world.

The juggler, modeled after Varo’s painting, El Juglar (The Juggler), is the novel’s trickster, whose presence in the tapestry destabilizes the terms of the contract between the moon and earth. In Varo’s painting, the juggler refers to canonical images from the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Clad in red, with tilted arms, Varo’s juggler resembles both “The Magician” and the “Two of Coins,” both of which can either symbolize balance or its unsettling. His presence in the novel is ultimately disruptive, producing both danger and possibility. It also activates Alissa’s journey. Ejected from the tower, she goes in search of the juggler, who travels in a theater troupe with the lion made of leaves.

Kechacha’s Lion embodies his own dualities: he is noble and embittered, dangerous and gentle. We quickly learn that he was once a man stricken with unrequited love for the wrong witch, who spelled him into his unlikely form. Through his proximity to the juggler, his encounter with the rebellious star-child is always already fated, as is his redemption. The relationship between Alissa and Lion also mirrors a tarot card, “Strength,” in which a woman, haloed with the balanced symbol of infinity, gently closes the jaws of a lion. If Alissa represents strength, then her partnership with Lion promises a restoration of the equilibrium that the juggler has disrupted. Incidentally, their connection also offers a rejoinder to another tale of captivity and liberation, which is the problematic fable of the Beauty and the Beast. Unlike Beauty, the lion never imprisons Alissa, nor does he become her prince. It isn’t the contract of marriage which hovers over them, but rather the promise of partnership—collaboration, not contract.

Behind Alissa and Lion’s humble tale lies a grander one, which transports the novel’s sensuous prose from scene to scene like waves. It would be cruel for me to divulge too much, but, as a teaser, the book features not just witches and monsters, but also magnificent machines, men with wheels for legs, enchanted wood that when hewn never dies. It has celestial dramas, a moon that weeps, constellations that coo. Throughout, the book reminds us of the contracts that bind creativity to function. Each chapter is introduced by a clause of the world’s foundational contract, ending in a coda: “Do not look for the Trickster, he will not come, or he will come only when there is another force at play which is beyond the scope of this contract.”

What lies beyond the scope of the contract? Is it the writer? The artist? The “real” world? Ultimately, the book is less interested in what lies beyond than what hides between the seams: chaos, contingency, subversion, imagination—all the ingredients of a revolutionary magic.

To Catch a Moon is a novel which opens conversations between our world and others, between women separated by time and space, between artists and artworks and audiences. It is not, however, a novel which can be appreciated on its own. Without its allusions and paratexts, the book is confusing. It is easy to become lost within its pages. Should you choose to read it, and I recommend you do, open a tab with Varo’s paintings, and buy or borrow a deck of tarot cards. Treat the novel as one translucent thread in a vast silken tapestry—one woven by Kechacha, Varo, her friends, her paintings, her mystical guides, and, of course, the moon.

Nicole Berland is an instructor and PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill, where she studies contemporary science-fiction television seriality. Her writing has appeared in PopMatters, The Carolina Quarterly, INDY Week, The Anarres Project, and several other publications. Visit her website, or find her on Twitter @nicwinnik.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
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In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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