Charles de Lint,
The Onion Girl
(Tor, 2001)

She's rarely the protagonist, but Jilly Coppercorn is always there. Since Charles de Lint created the city of Newford (exact location unknown) and peopled it with his fascinating array of residents -- artists and musicians, writers and professors, dreamers, philanthropists, mystics, wanderers and denizens of the street -- few have won the hearts and excited the imaginations of de Lint's readers as much as the enigmatic Jilly.

"Relentlessly cheerful," as one friend describes her near the start of de Lint's latest novel, The Onion Girl, Jilly is the backbone of Newford, holding her diverse network of friends together through good times and bad through her sheer force of will and high spirits.

But in The Onion Girl, the first novel to focus primarily on Jilly, the fey painter and armchair counselor finds her unflagging good cheer and resolve strained to new levels. Badly hurt -- possibly paralyzed -- in a hit-and-run accident, her studio and faerie paintings destroyed by an unknown vandal, Jilly must find a way to pull her life back together. All the friends in the world won't help her when her own subconscious refuses to let her heal.

But some memories she would rather not confront. Some scars run too deep. And Jilly, who has always wanted to experience the faerie realms personally, now finds escape from paralysis and a confining hospital bed by crossing into a dreamworld, a place of peacefulness where mysteries live. It would be so tempting for her just to close her eyes and stay there forever....

Although set in 1999, the chapters don't progress in a linear fashion. Jilly's current struggle and the actions/reactions of her friends are interwoven with flashbacks to her past (including the short story "In the House of My Enemy," reprinted here in its entirety), as well as the tragic tale of Raylene Carter, a "white trash" girl who was abused and unloved in her childhood and whose young adult life has been dominated by things going wrong. (Her relationship to Jilly becomes clear as the novel progresses, but I won't ruin the anticipation by explaining it here.)

Raylene, too, finds escape from her life in the dreamworld -- not like Jilly, as a human observer, but in the projected form of a wolf. Eventually leading her own pack of women who are "broken" in the real world and who find strength in the savagery of the hunt, Raylene soon turns their pursuit to a rarer, finer prey.

Of course, Jilly and Raylene have issues between them which must be addressed and resolved. Rest assured that de Lint never takes the easy or tidy way out of things -- his endings might not always be happy, in the traditional "ever after" sense, and they certainly remind the reader that things don't always end up the way we want them to. Along the way, prepare to be emotionally wrenched as you read about the tragedies -- horrific abuses and betrayals, shattered trusts, lost loves, missed opportunities and raw feelings laid bare -- which haunt the lives of de Lint's characters. At the same time, he provides ample evidence of true love and friendship, as well as the unyielding spirit that allows strong individuals to rise above their woes, living and always searching for the silver linings and hidden joys that make life worthwhile.

My only complaint with the book is the continuing over-mystification of Newford. De Lint's early novels were set in real places, primarily Ottawa, and while magical things happened there -- particularly to those living in the beloved Tamson House -- the reader never lost the sense that these were hints of magic in our world, the real world. But in Newford, perhaps in part because of the sheer volume of short and novel-length stories set there, it's beginning to seem that everyone there is either magical by nature or has had some tangible brush with the mystic. Even the diehard non-believers introduced in earlier tales are coming around and accepting the existence of magic -- the evidence is, after all, overwhelming -- and, frankly, it's getting harder and harder to imagine Newford as a part of this world. It is becoming in many ways a twin to Terri Windling's Bordertown, where the presence of faerie is obvious and undeniable to all who live or visit there.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 25 August 2001

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