rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Today's book. Caught up, yay! Author via [personal profile] coffeeandink.

I was recently on a (lovely) panel at Readercon about cities and the fantastic, which turned into a discussion about how to write cities in fiction believably: cities in fiction are never as strange as real cities, never feel as crowded, as full of things that you may never understand. Cities in reality are unexpected in ways that meld history and chaos and economics and human nature and above all multiplicity. Cities in fiction are lucky to get one or two of those elements, because a city in a novel is a story-tool, and it is a large and unwieldy tool, so quite often authors trim that tool to fit the story. When a city is trimmed too much, it may work for the plot but it does not feel real. It does not breathe. And there is so much in making a city feel real-- the distances, the way that transportation works, the class structures, the perfectly chosen detail. You have to cheat somewhere, as a writer.

I wish I'd read this book before the panel, because I would have used it as an example all over the place, never mind that it has very little to do with genre. Maggie Helwig's Toronto is alive in a way that cities in books rarely are. The way she cheated is simple and effective, and centers on a twofold strategy: one, you feel all the distances, because characters are always walking or taking public transit or not having public transit get them where they want, because this is not a book where people sit in rooms much. Conversations are mobile. People run into each other unexpectedly because of the patterns of their personal mobility; a man walking down a new street realizes that an acquaintance he hasn't seen much of for ten years has been working at a church on that street all this time, and he didn't notice because he usually walks one block over... and of course all the streets, subway and streetcar and bus lines, distances, ravines, are real.

Two, everything in the city that is relevant to the book gets mentioned. Everything. Her narration is semi-omniscient, centered more tightly on one character's perspective or another at times, but when an incident related to the plot occurs, the narration will include it, whether the people it involves know the other characters or not. The passages with people the other characters and the reader don't know are interwoven with great skill and lyricism; they never feel like interruptions. In fact they are incredibly atmospheric, because as the plot goes on they create an almost unbearable free-floating tension-- who will be involved next, in what is going on? No one in the city is disconnected from the possibility of being in the narrative.

Which is appropriate, because one of the things the book is about is a city-wide dread. Girls fall down. That is part of what the book is about. On a subway, a young woman falls down, vomiting, breaks out in a rash. So does one of her companions. They say they smelled roses directly beforehand. Blood tests and hazmat tests bring back no anomalies, but other girls fall down. Then men, women, children. A smell that isn't a smell, one says. Usually on the subway. Sometimes on street corners. Terrorism is blamed, of course, there are hate crimes; windows smashed, a man arrested for being the wrong nationality, the mounting certainty of war. The book is set in 2002 and the memory of New York City hangs in the air. Or is it a plague? Or is it only mass hysteria, or is there no only about it? There are a pair of taggers who weave in and out of the novel, writing on flat public surfaces: FEAR. And nothing else.

The principal characters are afraid, too, of other things and have good reason to be, so afraid that they register the subway incidents only as interruptions to the course of their lives. The principal one is a photographer, a diabetic, looking at the consequences of too many years spent playing games with his blood sugar; the ex-lover to whom he is inexorably connected has a similar possible time bomb of the self, and a brother who is her responsibility, deeply loved and deeply wounded. The web of connections between these people, their wider circle, and everyone involved in the incidents spans the mad and the sane, the wealthy, the homeless, the young, the wrecked, the happy, and the doomed. This is a book with a great range of things in it, not only desperate fear (there is a while where the reader wonders whether this is an oncoming apocalypse, the journal of a plague year, where everything is disintegrating beyond recall), but a delicate and ever-present humor, a pitiless eye for human frailty, a deep compassion, and a very fragile but never-quite-failing hope.

Her prose could cut glass. It is lovely beyond easy description. Here's the beginning:

The city is a winter city, at its heart. Though the ozone layer is thinning above it, and the summers grow long and fierce, still the city always anticipates winter. Anticipates hardship. In the winter, when it is raw and grey and dim, it is itself most truly.

People come here from summer countries and learn to be winter people. But there are worse fates. That is exactly why many of them come here, because there are far worse fates than winter.

It is a city that burrows, tunnels, turns underground. It has built strata of malls and pathways and inhabited spaces like the layers in an archaeological dig, a body below the earth, flowing with light. People turn to buried places, to successive levels of basements, lowered courtyards, gardens under glass. There are beauties to winter that are unexpected, the silence of snow, the intimacy with which we curl around places of warmth. Even the homeless and the outcasts travel downwards when they can, into the ravines that slice around and under the streets, where the rivers, the Don and Humber and their tributaries, carve into the heart of the city; they build homes out of tents and slabs of metal siding, decorate them with bicycle wheels and dolls on strings and boxes of discarded books, with ribbons and mittens, and huddle in the cold beside the thin water.

It is hard to imagine this city being damaged by something from the sky. The dangers to this city enter the bloodstream, move through interior channels.

If you see what I mean.

It wasn't easy for me to find a copy of this, because Helwig's books don't seem to get U.S. releases. But I am going to track down the rest of her stuff, and I highly, highly recommend doing likewise. This is a brilliant novel.


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