Review – Of Bees and Mist

This is a truly strange book – compulsively readable and annoying in equal measure. The cover is a bit of a giveaway consisting as it does of the title in big art deco letters on a grey background with a few white curlicues ie we’ve got no idea how to classify this. Just above the author’s name is a small picturebook-like silhouette of a tower on a cloud with a windswept woman’s figure. The publisher is tentatively suggesting this might be a kid’s fantasy.

This could be a fantasy book except it is set in a picturebook ‘real world’, in a city that might be northern European, central European or Asian; it has elements of each. It could be in medieval times, the nineteenth century or contemporary times. The clothes don’t help. In one place the heroine, Meridia, wears a knee length dress, yet her father wears a top hat and cloak. Everyone walks – there are no horses, or cars, or trains. In the gardens there are roses and marigolds but also bougainvillea, the food is cakes and sandwiches but also ginger and garlic and noodles. If we accept this hybrid world it is only one step further to accept that there are yellow and blue mists that enfold Meridia’s father when he leaves the house, that the house is perpetually freezing no matter the heat outside, and that Meridia’s mother-in-law dominates her family with vicious attacking bees that aren’t visible to others.

In Meridia’s world there are fortune tellers, invisible friends and people who fade into their spirit beings but there’s also school, romance and marriage, housekeeping and starting up a business. This mishmash of elements would be fatally off putting if it wasn’t for the strong narrative drive and the barrage of mysteries to be resolved. Meridia’s mother-in-law is a truly horrendous character, such a narcissistic sociopath that she doesn’t really need the (supernatural) bees the author bestows on her to perpetuate her horrors. Be warned, her comeuppance is a long-time coming.

The novel has been called magic realism, but it doesn’t quite fit that description, also an adult fairytale. That tag doesn’t really fit either but is closer to the mark. There are sexual references and crudity of language that mark this out as ‘adult’ whereas the story itself could be young adult, or teen. Perhaps as the phenomenon of Harry Potter showed, adults do want to read young fantasy books, and Of Bees and Mist has tapped into this. Interestingly, however, they’ve marketed the novel as general fiction, not fantasy.

I found it unsettling: I thought Meridia a little too self-satisfied, her husband a dolt, the feud between Meridia’s parents unbelievable and the fate of many characters unfair but, bloody hell, I couldn’t stop reading until I’d bolted through to the end.

Review – The Anatomy of Wings Karen Foxlee

UQP 288 pp

This novel is set in an unnamed mining town which we can take is based on Mount Isa where the author grew up. It’s the 1970s, Jenny Day is ten year’s old and something terrible has happened to her older sister, Beth. Jenny thinks the how and why of Beth’s death lies in a box of her belongings their mother has hidden away. Of course it’s not that simple and we follow Jenny’s childish attempts to make sense of things as she goes back over the last year of Beth’s life. Jenny is on the cusp between childhood and a more grown up view of the world and the author beautifully evokes Jenny’s love for her family and her sister, and her perplexity at what happens. She is torn between the fanciful romanticism of her grandmother and the prosaic reality of her mother, between her own safe world and the world of the ‘bad’ girls in town that Beth’s involved with. Some of what happens is confronting but the lyricism of Foxlee’s style and the wonderful character of Jenny make this an enjoyable book to read. The author beautifully recreates the poignancy of leaving the simplicity of childhood behind. She also has a marvellous eye for the details of small town life, as well as for the harsh beauty of the outback.

The Anatomy of Wings won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (South East Asia and South Pacific Region) and the 2008 Dobbie Literary Award for first published woman writer.

Review – The Owl Killers

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland, Michael Joseph 2009

The Owl Killers is a medieval thriller set in the early thirteen hundreds in a small village in South East England. Into this closed world where Christianity and paganism are in uneasy co-existence, come a group of Beguines from Bruges. They set up a community of women on land they have inherited near the village. Not surprisingly when disease and famine beset the village, the Beguine women are easily demonised as causing the misfortune. Despite fearing the women the villagers still surreptitiously bring their sick to the Beguinage, under the cover of night, to be healed. To complicate matters a fraternity of masked “Owl Masters” terrorise and extort from the villagers, and there is evidence that a pagan monster called the Owlman is preying on victims in the area.

The story is told through the points of view of five characters: Servant Martha the leader of the Beguines, a morally compromised priest, Father Ulfrid, Agatha the disgraced daughter of the local landowner who joins the Beguines, Beatrice, another of the Beguines, and a small village girl, Pisspuddle. The device of five different voices allows Maitland to build up the story from both the villagers’ side and from point of view of the Beguines, withholding vital pieces of information along the way to keep the reader guessing.

The novel has fantasy elements — the flesh-ripping Owlman, a “witch” with second sight, a wild forest girl who can control the weather — but these are explainable by the superstitious beliefs of the time. Maitland is also adept at portraying medieval life in all its smelly, gory detail.  From this mixture she weaves a fast-paced, tense, intriguing story. It might get bogged down in places with too many strands in play but for the most part I couldn’t put the book down. The Owl Killers will appeal to historical fiction fans who like their stories dark and to fantasy buffs who don’t mind a dose of reality.