I was in the mood to read one of my favorite authors, to revisit an old and comfortable friend. Also, I’ve been wanting to read more this year in the fantasy genre, so Charles de Lint made sense. My first experience with de Lint was his phenomenal short story collection Dreams Underfoot. I will never forget just how blown away I was by this author who could merge fantastical creatures and lands with healthy doses of everyday pain. Since this initial exposure, I’ve read several more of his urban fantasy works, such as Memory and Dream, Moonlight and Vines, and Moonheart. I’ve also read a few of his straight up classic fantasy stories like Wolf Moon and The Riddle of the Wren. Last year, I did a Triple Fantasy Novel Review which included those last two works. Although his original fantasy is good, nothing beats de Lint’s modern stories set in the fictional town of Newford. These stories deal with finding magic in the modern world with fully realized characters who learn that not all magic is good.
At the heart of Newford is Jilly Coppercorn, an artist who shines with a brightness that few others possess. With flecks of paint in her jeans, nails, and hair, Jilly is loved by all of the residents of Newford. She has appeared in several of the Newford short stories and as a background character in some of the novels. The Onion Girl is the first novel to feature Jilly front and center. Tragedy strikes at the beginning, and this horrific event serves as the means to tell the sad and twisted story of her upbringing. Much of Jilly’s dark past was already written about in the 1993 story “In the House of My Enemy,” which is reprinted here because de Lint says he did not want to revisit the horrific abuse visited on Jilly as a child. The novel begins with a hit and run that has left her paralyzed. Referring to herself as “the Broken Girl,” Jilly learns that she cannot be fully healed by her spirit friends until she can heal herself from her brutal past.
However, this Broken Girl does find solace in the faerie world as Jilly discovers the ability to dream herself there where she is completely healed. Those with the power to dream themselves into the faerie world can make themselves appear as their ideal images of themselves. For Jilly, this ability comes at a price as she begins to withdraw further from the real world and her friends. The sudden reappearance of someone from her past along with a new danger that has appeared in the faerie world take of most of the plot of the book.
“The faerie represent the beauty we don’t see, or even choose to ignore. That’s why I’ll paint them in junkyards, or fluttering around a sleeping wino. No place or person is immune to spirit. Look hard enough, and everything has a story. Everybody is important.”
Despite the somewhat darker themes of The Onion Girl, this book is really beautiful and heartwarming. I love the theme of magic existing side-by-side with the modern world. I’m a firm believer in the magic of our modern world, and it can be found around everything and inside everyone. Jilly managed to overcome horrific trauma and violence in order to become a champion of the less fortunate around her. She sees beauty everywhere. That’s the idea that de Lint tries to show his readers, and through the use of fantasy elements he can develop this truly grand story of healing and redemption. The idea explored here is that we choose the paths we take. This is shown through the development of the character from Jilly’s past. This person serves as a dark mirror to the person we’ve grown to know and love through the Newford tales.
“I suppose the other thing too many forget is that we were all stories once, each and every one of us. And we remain stories. But too often we allow those stories to grow banal, or cruel or unconnected to each other.We allow the stories to continue, but they no longer have a heart. They no longer sustain us.”
When I first discovered de Lint’s work, it reminded me of that sense of excitement I had when I first read Neil Gaiman. I think a lot of comparisons between the two can be made. Gaiman works myth on a large scale, where de Lint mostly works in folkore: girls who can change into crows, beings with animal heads, trees that grow off of stories, and beings who exist only as long as others believe in them.
Despite all of its strengths, there are elements of The Onion Girl that didn’t work for me. It is one of de Lint’s longer novels, and it took time to get the plot going. Despite my love for these characters, it does get a tad annoying that nearly everyone is an artist or writer with some type of magical ability. Also, not every mystery is resolved. I have the followup novel Widdershins, so I’m hoping for some resolution there. Look for my review in a future blog.
Many of the characters from de Lint’s short fiction appear in this novel, but it’s not necessary to have read any of his other work first. It will just lead to more appreciation for the town of Newford if you know some of the backstories for these characters. For the Newford newcomers, I recommend starting with either the short story collection Dreams Underfoot or the novel Memory and Dream. I dare you to sample these and not become a fan. Let the magic seep over you, as de Lint will mesmerize you with his writing.