by Margaret Mahy
Faber and Faber, 2009
There is something about Margaret Mahy's writing. The way this woman used words is special, and I always find myself feeling a little breathless and awed when I am reading her books - even her children's books, our favourite of which is Bubble Trouble. I don't think her writing is for everyone; I do think, occasionally, that the way the words are put together takes precedence over the story and the characters, and a perfectly marvelous little jewel of the English language will shine a little too brightly for the rest of the paragraph to support it. But I am in love with my language, and am okay to admire something that is just so beautiful, or apt, or beautifully strange that it pulls one away from the story it is telling for just the briefest moment.
Beautifully strange pretty much describes this book, as well. The titular character, Heriot Tarbas, is only one of three point-of-view characters in the novel, though he gets the majority of the book. We meet him as a boy, living on a farm built in the ruins of a much grander structure (love this) and surrounded by his industrious and loving, but somewhat puzzled, family. Heriot has always been a little strange, plagued by visions, vivid dreams, and terrible headaches and "fits." So he is marked as being different. But he loves his life on the farm, and when events conspire to pull him away from it, he is desperate to escape his destiny.
Heriot is inextricably tied, by magic and then by friendship, to Dysart, the third son of the King of Hoad, our third point-of-view character and considered "mad" because he too is plagued by strange visions and dreams, as well as extraneous because he has two elder brothers to be heirs to the throne. The second point-of-view character is Linnet, daughter of one of the Lords of Hoad, whose fortunes become tied to Dysart's and by extension to Heriot's when she and Dysart are thrown together in classes while Dysart's father is negotiating a peace with their warring neighbours.
It struck me as interesting that I've now read two novels in the past two months that are about how difficult maintaining a peace can be - more difficult, in some ways, than constant warring. In both it is the generation that grows up in peacetime, that is used to peace and understands their function in it, that can be the instruments of preserving the peace when it becomes strained. But this is only one of the themes in Heriot worth mentioning. The book also explores the dangers of seeing people as symbols, themes of love and friendship, the process of self-discovery and self-actualization. It looks carefully at the stories we tell ourselves and the stories others tell about us, and what those stories can mean to the teller and the told, and what powers one has and doesn't have over the stories told about oneself.
It is not a perfect book, despite my love for it. Frankly I thought Linnet was entirely underused, her storyline somewhat predictable and undeveloped, and that was disappointing. And all of the characters can be a bit slippery, hard to define, despite being distinct and interesting. There can be a distance between the reader and the characters, even the point-of-view characters. I was fascinated by Heriot and grew to love him; I loved Cayley, the fourth major character, from the start, but he's not an easy character to pin down, either. This is not completely unexpected with Mahy, though, I don't think. I feel the same distance from Sorry and his family in her book The Changeover and I think it is a bit of a function of the strangeness of the characters' abilities and situations. Because that's the thing: there is strangeness, and discomfort. The characters experience it and the reader does, too, and not just because the characters are experiencing it. There is something about Mahy's writing that can be uncompromisingly odd. I wish I could tell you how she does it.
The other thing that amazes me is that she can walk that line between being beautifully (sometimes viscerally, brutally) descriptive and can take a person out of the story with her language, and yet I have never considered her to be flowery or purple in her prose. It all seems to fit, or perhaps I am giving her a pass because passages like "What he could make out was the unfamiliar accent, much quicker and more clipped than the family voices, and more careful. Lord Glass polished every word a little bit before he let it out on its own in the world." delight me so much.
And if you are the sort of person who needs to have all the blanks filled in, this is not a book that will agree with you much; there are periods of time that go unexplored and many things that go unsaid. The reader has to do a bit of work, and it's not always easy work either. I have noticed, too, that some people find the ending too explain-y, but I didn't mind that particular bit at all. The clues were all there, and I found it cathartic to have someone finally lay it out, make the final important connections.
I can't say for sure whether this is the best introduction to Mahy if you've never read anything by her; to be honest, I've read a lot of her children's books (all of them? I hope not) and only two of her books for older readers. Between the two, I do think The Changeover is more accessible, because Laura's an easier character to grasp and to inhabit. But Heriot has a scope and a sweep that The Changeover does not, and lovers of high fantasy who are willing to give something a bit different a try, or who love it when an author revels in her facility with words and is able to share some of that joy with her readers, would do well to read this one.