This book. Oh, this book.
It took me a few months to read this collection, this mosaic novel. This is no reflection on the quality of the book. Well, actually it is, but not the way you might think. See, I’d read a story, and then I’d be forced to close the book, sigh, and stare into space in order to wallow in the beauty of the prose. And then I’d have to go read something else, because (like with me and Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love series) sometimes too much beauty is painful and you need a break.
First off, look at that cover. Is she not glorious? are the colours not soothing and enticing? Created by the awesome Kathleen Jennings (who chronicles the saga of its production on her blog), I would absolutely have this on my wall. LOVE.
Angela Slatter and Lisa L Hannett created the contents. Writers who collaborate are even more of a mystery to me than authors who work alone, and to produce this sort of magic has to be just that – occult somehow. And they haven’t been content to just a straightforward story. Instead, as suggested above, this could be seen as a collection or a mosaic novel. A collection because it is made up of short stories that can basically stand by themselves. You could take one and put it in an anthology and it would still work ok. However – and here’s a metaphor I’m very pleased with – that’s like taking a candle out of a chandelier. Yes, it still sheds light. But when you put it with its fellow candles and they’re ringed with crystal, the whole effect is so much more just a few candles in one place. These thirteen stories, read together and in sequence (and wrapped in that art), are far more than the sum of their parts. Together, they create a history of an entire people: their origins, their interactions with humanity, their crises and triumphs, and the ongoing impact of a few families and their heirlooms. Thus, a mosaic novel – there is continuity, but it’s thematic and genetic; there’s only one character appears in or influences lots of the stories. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Edward Rutherford (London, Sarum) and James A Michener (The Source) following multiple generations in one place in order to fictively illustrate local history. Slatter and Hannett do just that… with magic. And Norse gods. Same amount of revenge though.
The premise, as set out in “Seeds,” is of Odin’s raven Munin (memory, here called Mymnir) surviving Ragnarok and setting out for Vinland (thought to be somewhere on the north-eastern corner of North America) with a few followers. Once she gets there, she creates an enclave and peoples it with servants, and sets out to rule it I guess like she learned from the Aesir she’s observed for however many centuries. Of course this does not go entirely well either for her or for her people. There’s love and betrayal, selflessness and vindictiveness; people get beaten up, rescued, married off, wooed… and some people even manage to make their own destinies. My estimate is that the stories take place over roughly a millennium, but that’s based entirely on the fact that that’s about how long ago it’s posited that Vikings did historically head off for Vinland and settle for a short span. The early stories take place in a sort of timeless, medieval-ish zone; from memory there are no dates in the first seven stories, and it feels like that sort of myth/fantasy where time itself is important but recording it is less so. Then, with “Midnight,” suddenly the external world exists and thrusts itself onto this dreamy place. From then on, time is relentless, and within 5 or 6 stories it’s the modern world. This development works mostly because although the stories do stand alone, there is continuity within families. Sometimes the names give them away, sometimes it’s an heirloom appearing, occasionally a reference to a past event. This often means that rather than having to struggle for a new emotional connection every time, the reader can build on the investment already made in the character’s family, from an earlier story. It’s the same reason Rutherford and Michener’s works can be successful.
And on top of all of this, the sheer beauty of the prose. I do not have the words to explain how delightful the words in this book are. It just all works.
Did I mention it’s an Australian production? Produced by Ticonderoga, in Perth.
You can get Midnight and Moonshine over at Fishpond. (Although it does ship from a US supplier.)
I have been wanting to read Byatt for a long time now and somehow have never got around to it. Shame on me. So when I saw this little book for sale for about $6 in a dinky little newsagent in a dinky little town – SNAP. MINE.
It’s part of the Canongate Myths series, which I had heard of and thought I had read a few… but if you click on that link (don’t do it, Tansy, it’s a rabbit hole!) you’ll see there’s HEAPS and most of them I hadn’t heard of! Although I was right, and it is the same series as The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood, swooooon – I love that book so much; it’s Penelope’s side of The Odyssey… thus the Greek version of Ursula le Guin’s Lavinia, I guess) and Jeanette Winterson’s Weight (about Hercules and Atlas, and also excellent). Thing with these books – those I’ve read – is that they’re retellings of myths. So when I saw that this was Ragnarok, the Norse myth of The End of Days, and that it involved WW2 – well, I assumed that the two were going to be mashed in a glorious Armageddon. That is, however, not what happened.
There are two parallel stories in this volume. One is a rough outline of Norse mythology from creation to the end of times, mostly following the antics of Loki, which is fair enough since he may have been around from the start and was largely responsible for the end. It’s a pretty straight retelling, as far as I can tell; Byatt has added in motivation and dialogue and the sorts of things that modern readers expect, but there’s no wild deviation into really exploring Loki or giving Loki and Baldur a steamy romance that explains the mistletoe episode. So while I enjoyed that, because they’re good stories and there were some details (like Loki’s parenting of the monsters) that had never clicked in my head before, it wasn’t really what I was expecting.
The second story is that of the thin child – as she is always referenced – as she is evacuated to the countryside during WW2, and is given a book of Norse mythology. It’s the thin child’s experiences of life during wartime, and of discovering mythology and literature – there’s a strong suggestion I think that this is heavily autobiographical. There’s certainly a sense that it is the thin child telling the Norse stories to the reader. This aspect was also quite enjoyable, although frustrating because it felt to me like it lacked depth. I think mostly I was disappointed that the connections between the war and Ragnarok were not made explicit. Byatt goes to the point of saying that the thin child’s father, a pilot away at war, has “red-gold hair” and is “like a god”… but makes no further connection to the idea that he, or the airforce, could be connected to Thor or some other aspect of mythology.
It’s definitely a good read, and I am definitely going to just down more Byatt. If you know nothing about Norse mythology this is a very good, and entertaining, place to start. If you’re looking for a Norse equivalent of The Penelopiad, this is not it.