We all need a to find a little magic in reality to survive. Sure, it might be brutally cold out there, but the ice sparkles. The books in this week’s Brit + Co book club marry unsentimental conditions with bits of fancy and charm. They’re not wacky or heavily whimsical, but they’re thoughtful and thoroughly delightful, about art, love and family.
1. The Stolen Child by Lisa Carey ($16): The magic in Lisa Carey’s The Stolen Child comes from the ancient Irish myths about fairies, but it’s no fairy tale, full of dread, regret and stark descriptions of lives unfulfilled. In May of 1959, 40-year-old American Brigid comes to stay on an Irish island that fittingly bears her name. “St. Brigid’s Island perched like a jagged accident above the water, all grass and rock, no beach to ease the passage of a boat, no harbor to shelter it once there.” The forbidding island was settled hundreds of years before, and maintains what some would call a rustic, old-world charm, but some would call a nightmare: there’s no electricity and almost no contact with the outside world.
Brigid’s arrival disrupts the insular world of the island, where the residents suspect she’s come for reasons other than to claim the cottage left to her by her uncle. The residents, including sisters Rose and Emer, are right: Brigid, who has a talent for healing, has never been able to have the children she wants, and there’s a longstanding rumor that a well on the island can grant wishes and change lives. Rose and Emer are the other’s mirror, the former open and appealing, the latter hard and morose.
Many of Emer’s deepest fears are based in the belief that her young son, Niall, will be taken and replaced by a changeling on his seventh birthday (fairies have strange ideas about what constitutes a present, having already removed Emer’s eye from an earlier dalliance). Meanwhile, there are simmering resentments between the sisters, as Rose married Emer’s love and Emer got stuck with his alcoholic brother. Carey, known for her previous novel The Mermaids Singing, weaves a story of legend about an island that few ever leave, but after the events of one fateful night, they may not be able to stay.
2. The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill ($22): Canadian author O’Neill (Lullabies for Little Criminals) takes us into the magical Montreal underworld, where two orphans find love, fame, art, drugs and tragedy. Pierrot and Rose are both left to the same orphanage in the brutal winter of 1914. They grow up inseparable, and their love for each other manifests in their talents: Rose is a dancer and comedian; Pierrot plays piano in ways that make even the most jaded stop and listen. The nuns that run the orphanage vow to keep them apart (“they had already escaped death. And still they were expecting more”), but their performance success is initially too compelling, and the funds are keeping the orphanage afloat.
When the two reach their teens, each is claimed as a servant in a different household, seemingly ruining their dreams of running a circus troupe, and their lives, together. The Great Depression brings with it additional brutal realities for the two young artists, as they find themselves caught in economies of theft and sex, but their eventual reunion brings joy and renewed magic. They find themselves on the way to New York, act in hand, ready to change the world.
O’Neill gives us a novel full of signs and wonders, music, passion and dreams. It’s a harsh world where “All anyone could afford was indignation,” but it’s also a world where infants can be brought back from the dead in the strangest of ways, black cats follow you around and, if you can’t run away to join the circus, you may be able to convince it to join you.
3. Autumn by Ali Smith ($16): “So an old old man washes up on shore…Daniel Gluck, your luck’s run out at last. He prises open one stuck eye. Daniel sits up on the sand and the stones – is this it? really? this? is death? He shades his eyes. Very bright.” In Ali Smith’s Autumn, which is the first of a set of anticipated seasonal novels, the reader travels back and forth in time throughout the friendship between Elisabeth and Daniel (70 years her elder), who Elizabeth met when she was a child looking for a person to interview for school.
Smith’s unusual writing is song-like and fragmented, and the novel slips seamless from dream to reality, as Daniel teaches Elisabeth about wordplay and writing. Though there’s definitely a fantasy quality to the writing, the book is not only firmly connected to the real world, it’s connected to our world right now. Daniel’s past love is a real artist named Pauline Boty, the novel mentions real court cases, and there’s even a reference the effect of Brexit on the country to keep things both topical and tense.
Smith’s exploration of friendship is one worth following through time and narrative changes, even through the rules she twists of the novel form, breaking borders in a world that’s forming more and more of them. Through the magic of the journey, Smith shows us that “the self you get left with on the shore, in the end, is the self that you were when you went.”
What books are magical to you? Tag us in your next delightful read @britandco.