A new book by Seanan McGuire is always a treat: I know by now that each new narrative path she forges will lead toward new worlds, new discoveries. One of the best facets of this very prolific author is that she always speaks with a different voice for every new story she decides to share, that each tale she spins is like no other she previously told.
This time we visit Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, but don’t expect your run-of-the-mill kind of runaways here: the children of her school have all found a doorway into some kind of alternate, fairy-tale-like world, and dwelled there for a time. Once they came back to our world – either by chance or choice – they find out they have changed, that the other world they inhabited for a time has become home and they feel like strangers in their place of origin, with their families. All they want is to find again that special door and go back: some manage it, some don’t, and Eleanor – who knows intimately what they are going through – helps them find their way or, for the less fortunate, to learn how to adapt in the “real” world, how to cope with it.
Nancy is the latest addition to Eleanor’s group of pupils: having spent her time in the Halls of the Dead, she has learned the virtues of stillness, silence and darkness and is unable to deal with what she perceives as the boisterous outside world. From her recollection, and the shared experiences of her school-mates, we learn that these fairylands where the children get lost are quite as far from the tales of our childhood: more often than not, these are cold, cruel worlds, where the children have to learn strange and frightening talents to survive.
The kind of world they could step in is defined by a sort of compass whose cardinal points are Logic, Nonsense, Virtue and Wickedness, with many in-between variations, and every world is highly suited to the child who enters it: what all of them share is the feeling of finally belonging, of having found the place where the peculiarities that might make them outcasts in our world help them fit perfectly in the otherness of that place. The changes they undergo during their time away make them unfit for our world, and strangers to their own families who either seek desperately to recapture the lost child from before, or totally reject the stranger they got back.
The analogy with the difficult time of puberty seems clear to me here: in that uneasy passage from childhood to adulthood many (if not all) children do feel estranged from everything and everyone they took for granted until that moment, and so many take refuge in some inner world no adult can enter, or understand. Growing up, returning to the “real” world, can be a difficult, painful process and some will always look back with longing to that place – real or imagined – where everything was and felt right. It’s a heart-breaking consideration, one that’s never openly expressed in the story but still makes its presence felt, like something glimpsed just out of the corner of one’s eye.
Sharing those experiences with others from this world is self-defeating: no one can understand if they have not gone through the same kind of journey, and what these children often face is disbelief, scorn or the suspicion of madness. So they are doubly prisoners: of a reality that does not fit them anymore, and of the impossibility to give voice to their anguish and the longing for an unreachable place. There is an interesting passage where it’s said that some of those who were unable to return, translated their experience into fiction, at the same time unburdening their souls from the pain of separation and reaching success and financial gain. It’s an interesting way of looking at the inspiration for many fantastic realms we enjoyed from the pages of a book…
The main theme in this novella seems to be identity: how we perceive ourselves in relation to the world and other people, and how we perceive ourselves as people. Gender issues are explored through the experiences of some of the characters, always in the almost-offhand, never-preaching way I’ve come to enjoy and respect in Seanan McGuire’s writing, but there is a paragraph that I found very intriguing about the differences between girls and boys in the perception of these magical doorways and the process of getting lost in them:
“[boys] are too loud, on the whole, to be easily misplaced or overlooked; […] we spend so much time waiting for our boys to stray that they never have the opportunity. We notice the silence of men. We depend on the silence of women.”
It’s a somewhat frightening, and also bittersweet consideration that goes hand in hand with the subtle feeling of unease I experienced while reading: it was like hearing a tense background music in a movie, signaling that something was about to happen – and it was not related only to the gruesome series of events that follows on Nancy’s arrival at school. I believe the unease came from the understanding of the extreme state of flux of these lost children, of the uncertainty about their destiny; from the perception that I, as a reader, was on a threshold that could carry me either way – fulfillment or quiet despair – like the characters of this story. It was a good kind of unease, because it grabbed hold of my attention and never let go until the last page.
I hope Ms. McGuire will keep expanding on this new world of hers, because now that she has opened the doorway, I don’t want to go back…