I think the following two quotes from a review by PopMatters.com that I found on Charles de Lint’s website do a fine job of summing up both what I like and what I don’t like about “The Onion Girl.” (Note: I’ve left the quotes as they appeared on the website, typos and all.)
However, despite the somewhat darker themes of The Onion Girl, the appeal of the book is much the same as with de Lint’s previous work: the theme of magic existing side-by-side with the modern world. The theme of a hidden dimension to life, is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the fundamental theme of mythology no wonder, then, that de Lint eschews the label “urban fantasy” for his own description: “mythic fiction.” As Jilly tells a homeless girl she’s taking care of, “‘If there’s no magic, there’s no meaning. Without magic or call it wonder, mystery, natural wisdom nothing has any depth. It’s all just surface.” Later, a spirit tells Jilly that “it is so easy for your people to forget that everything has a spirit That magic and mystery are a part of your lives, not something to store away in a child’s bedroom, or to use as an escape from your lives.
There are weak points, in The Onion Girl as with the original Newford short stories: the theme of child abuse is revisited too often, the plots seem to take a long time to get anywhere, and the characters do seem to fall into the categories of the Skeptic and the Believer. More to the point, the theme of a hidden dimension to the world, and of confronting the existence of magic, may grow tiresome, but that theme is why I read de Lint, (as well as Gaiman). Stone-cold rationalist as I seem to be, I don’t want to live in a world without magic, without wonder. Like Jill Sobule says in a song, “I’d love to see a miracle once before I die.” De Lint’s stories make you believe in miracles, and The Onion Girl is no exception.
I agree with the PopMatters review and found the returning to themes and scenes of child abuse excessive and one of major weak points of The Onion Girl. And the junkie-hooker treatment that follows. I remember wondering while reading why so many novels seem to think that that is the only route an abused child can go down, and wishing that they’d stop with this already.
And the more I thought on it, the more I agree that the characters tend to fall into archetypes. There was character development, however, and there were female characters that talked of things other than boyfriends and make-up. When I had written about well-developed characters in my earlier post there was a twingling in my thoughts, but I couldn’t place it, and so what I typed stayed. I should have thought longer about it.
Lo at Goodreads mentioned that her favorite character was the sister – this prompted me to do some thinking. She describes Raylene as a “spunky girl who’s had a lot of shit thrown in her fan, but she fights back with the aid of her closest friend, Pinky Miller. Also, Raylene is the one intelligent female in this book – it’s her best trait. She can easily solve problems and manipulate her way out of a sticky situation just on her astuteness.” Though Raylene is not a “nice girl” – she cons people for a living (most of the novel, she does get a “real job” and sticks with it for quite some time) – she is smart and doesn’t take other people’s shit. She stands up for herself. Traits that are sadly lacking in many female characters, especially abused ones. Plus, she’s got a knife. It just would have been a refreshing change if she hadn’t been a criminal as well. At least she wasn’t a prostitute.
Lo described “The Onion Girl” as “a dark light-hearted book.” I think that’s a great description. She recommended it for preteens and dreamers.
What I liked most about the novel, the “theme of a hidden dimension to life” as PopMatters’ calls it, is why I was so taken in. It’s a theme I would like to read about and discuss in more depth. It’s a theme I think is terribly important. I feel like this idea is responsible for a large part of who I am and why I think the way I think. So to see it prominently displayed in a novel, and one with a female protagonist as well, really pushed my buttons.
There were a few places where I felt de Lint was a bit didactic. I don’t feel he was overly so, but enough that it broke the story-telling spell and I came out of the world of the novel to think that this might sound preachy to some readers. Of course that has been the major complaint about some novels that I particularly love for their themes and visions of how the world could be but isn’t (Woman on the Edge of Time comes to mind immediately). Perhaps that is a tendency for novels that are strongly theme-driven rather than character-driven.
So, I liked the theme of a hidden dimension to life; female characters not going on about boyfriends and make-up; a character whose childhood fantasy reminded me of my own; a strong, if violently criminal, female character in Raylene. I did not like the repetitive use of child abuse; the abused girl who turns into a junkie-hooker; the almost complete lack of negative emotions on Jilly’s part (other than self-pity for her broken body, no anger at her abusers whatsoever – odd).
Mixed review despite my earlier excitement for “The Onion Girl.” I was totally taken by the theme and the dreamlands. Maybe I wanted it to be more of where I go and where I come from than it was.