I’ve finished reading Charles de Lint’s novel The Onion Girl (at Goodreads, at Charles de Lint’s site). Just over 500 pages and I read it in only a handful of sittings. I pretty much gobbled this book down. Why? It has many of the topics and emotions that have filled my world and my dreams since I was a child.
On the second page of The Onion Girl we are introduced to “a little girl who wished… she could find some way to cross over into whatever worlds might lie beyond this one, those wonderful worlds that she read about in stories” (page 14). I gave a little cry when I read that. “She would tap at the back of closets and always look very carefully down rabbit holes” (14). That describes me as a child. In this novel, it’s Jilly, our main character, remembering her childhood.
The novel begins with a hit and run that has left Jilly in a coma and suffering from severe bodily damage. Half her body is paralyzed and many bones are broken. She may or may not regain control of her body, she may or may not walk again. More importantly for Jilly, she may or may not paint again. She’s an artist, a painter, in her late thirties (about). She paints fantastical characters, goblins and gnomes and faeries, in modern urban settings, often in run-down, junked-out places like abandoned warehouses, trashed alleys. Her stories and paintings of faeries are what kept her spirit alive, what kept her human during her traumatic childhood. Now she’s faced with the possibility of never painting again.
Jilly learns that she must face her past and heal those old emotional wounds before she can heal herself physically in the present. This requires more than just Jilly. It involves the little sister she left behind when she ran away from home to escape the abuse. A sister, Raylene, who faced the same abuse but dealt with it and her approach to life in a very different way. Jilly created support and community, art and healing. She invited people in. Raylene turned to conning and manipulation. She pushed most everyone aside, or down if it helped her steal a buck or two.
de Lint’s novel takes place as much in the otherworld, also known as the spiritworld, the dreamlands, manidò-akì, as in this world, also termed consensual reality, or The World As It Is. “I’ve always been aware of the otherworld, of spirits that exist in that twilight place that lies in the corner of our eyes…” says Jilly, “whispers and flickering shadows, here one moment, gone the instant we turn our heads for a closer look” (page 14). As have I.
And I, like Jilly “wanted to be the kid who gets to cross over into the magical kingdom….” and that even as “a child I knew it wasn’t simply escape that lay on the far side… an understanding hidden in the marrow of my bones… telling me that by crossing over, I’d be coming home” (page 60). I read that and my eyes teared up. Someone wrote about and described “the wonder, the mystery, the beauty” of that other world I dreamed about so desperately. This author described the feeling I had of yearning, of sad remembrance for a place I have only been to in dreams. How could I have not read any of his books before?
There’s plenty at stake. Characters are well-developed and have emotional arcs and learning curves that are believable. Not everyone is wholly likeable or wholly unlikeable. Pacing is great, the plot is engaging and full of tension. There’s philosophy and world-views, there’s psychology, there are a variety of cultures at play. The dreamlands aren’t wholly a European western construction. And there’s multiple voices, which I enjoyed. Jilly is the main character and narrator, but much of the novel is narrated by her sister, Raylene, and other important characters. A well woven tale.
Note: this novel includes topics that might be triggering for some people: child abuse (including sexual abuse), prostitution, drug addiction.