You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Onion Girl

In Charles de Lint's The Onion Girl, Jilly Coppercorn is a woman in her thirties who appears to have overcame a dark past to present a ever cheerful personality to her friends. But she is forced to finally confront her past when she becomes the victim of a hit and run accident and is partially paralyzed and has a broken arm and leg. What crushes her spirit most is the thought that with her right arm paralyzed she will never again be able to draw or paint, which is the center of her life.

Jilly lives the fictional town of Newford but has just learned to transport her spirit to the faerie world where she is whole. Her friend Sophie has been going there for years, and their friend Wendy becomes Jealous that she can't go there. As Jilly lies in the hospital bed, she longs just to go back to sleep and travel away from the World As It Is to the faerie world. Yet she understands that when she leaves her body she is abandoning her true life and she will not begin to heal until she deals with the problems of her past.

Jilly's past is in the human form of her younger sister Raylene, whom Jilly abandoned to a terrible home when she was an adolescent and Raylene was a young child. Raylene suffers at the hands of their parents and is raped by their brother Del until she sticks a switchblade--given to her by her friend Pinky--in him one night. Raylene is a sort of shadow, a dark double of Jilly. They sprung from the same source, yet while Jilly managed to get beyond her past and troubled teens with the help of her friends, Raylene lived a life of violence that turned her bitter and vengeful. When Raylene breaks into Jilly's studio apartment and sees the paintings of whimsical faerie creatures from around Newford she tears them to shreds in a rage.

Jilly's friend Joe Crazy Dog travels through faerie and learns that someone has been dreaming themselves into faerie in wolf form and hunting unicorns. He and his friends vow to track down the wolves and stop them. But before he can he discovers that Jilly has been kidnapped. Raylene and her friend Pinky have picked up Jilly's body from the rehab center and walked through a wall into the faerie world. Thus Jilly's past has finally caught up with her and forced her to confront her demons. Jilly makes a sacrifice to give her sister another chance, even though others believe she doesn't deserve it.

This story of two lives can be seen as two stories of the same life split in two. Raylene is the version of Jilly's life if she didn't escape the bad home and eventually find friends who gave her a real chance at success. Jilly knows that Raylene never had a fair shot and feels strong guilt at abandoning her. Raylene is bitter that the sister who was the only one who cared about her left her behind. Jilly makes her sacrifice not just for Raylene's sake but to make herself whole in spirit. Raylene is her shadow, her alter self, and she can never give up on her. In an interesting twist, Raylene has her own shadow in Pinky, who is even more violent and vengeful. Pinky and Jilly are two possible alternatives for Raylene to choose, and while she never fully embraces Jilly or her offers, she does reject Pinky's violence in the end.

Newford is a city filled with magic and fey creatures. Jilly and her friends are playful about how much of it they believe in, and Wendy is somewhat shocked to discover the faerie world. I'm not sure I completely buy into the fanciful world though. It sometimes seemed it was too much related to Jilly and her friends and didn't have much depth. The faerie world itself was interesting and I always felt like there was more to know about it.

The conflict in the story is all inside Jilly, except for when it manifests itself with Raylene's kidnapping of her. She had lived through extreme circumstances and made a good life, but couldn't completely put her damaging past away for good. I think the story has more resonance if it's read as symbolic, with Raylene as the dark past that's always haunting you until it catches up with you. Jilly is the Onion Girl because inside her outward facing layers are darker layers and finally a hollow shell. The novel is the story of how she starts to fill that emptiness. B+


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