I have no idea what to make of this. Anyone who’s read it will understand when I say that I’ve never read anything like it. It’s so far out to left field that it probably meets itself coming the other way. And yet I loved it.
Here’s the premise: Morwenna is a fifteen-year-old girl with eccentric family life, who is, after a dramatic family implosion, under the care of her long-absent father, and starting at a girls’ boarding school. Retreating into a shell of leave-me-alone-ness, she finds consolation in reading – inhaling, almost – every sci-fi and fantasy book she can get her hands on. That’s a fairly bald summary of a story that involves a witchy mother, fairies and magic (possibly), a family for whom the word weird just doesn’t come close, as well as the banal details of school life and an array of glorious asides on the books she’s reading.
The story is set in 1979, primarily, I suspect, to allow the author to describe as new some of the iconic SF works of that era. It’s always easier to toss out comments about these books from a distance of several decades. Most of the historical details rang true to me (it’s set in Britain, on the Welsh border), but there were a few issues that jumped out at me. For instance, I simply can’t believe that any doctor of the era would routinely prescribe the pill for a fifteen-year-old (ie below the age of consent). There were a few bent medics who asked no questions, but generally speaking you needed to be at least engaged, and preferably married, before you could even mention contraception to a doctor. Then there’s the casual way Morwenna deals with the idea of incest, which seemed off to me. However, she’s a strange girl in multiple ways: incest is shrugged off, but she agonises at length over the ethics of using magic for personal benefit, such as making a bus arrive just when she needs it, and the knock-on effects on scores of other individuals who might be inconvenienced by that. Which was quite funny.
The plot… well, what plot? Morwenna goes to school, Morwenna reads books, Morwenna deals with her family, Morwenna makes friends. Apart from an overly melodramatic finale, nothing terribly exciting happens, except that the reader gradually finds out what happened when Morwenna’s twin died. Oh yes, and Morwenna talks to fairies and does magicky things when they tell her to. And here the book is actually very clever, because everything is equally interpretable as the product of an over-active imagination. An imagination, moreover, steeped in fantastical worlds. Is Morwenna really seeing fairies and using magic, or does she just think she is? Since the story is told through her eyes, it’s left to the reader to decide. The whole book is equally understandable either way.
So what is the book really about? It’s about reality and fantasy, about what you see and what you believe, it’s about the blurring of the lines between worlds, and most of all it’s about magic: what is magic, after all? Is it real, if you only believe in it hard enough? Is it always there, except we’re mostly oblivious? Or is the real magic going on only in our heads, in the other worlds we inhabit there? Your guess is as good as mine.
A fine, thought-provoking book, which I don’t profess to understand beyond a superficial level, but which I loved, nevertheless. Five stars.