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“Everybody has a part to play,” her mother said. “Bart Seston raises cattle, the butcher slaughters them so we can have food. A midwife brings people into the world, an undertaker buries them when they die. Life is good sometimes, hard sometimes, bad sometimes, and good again.”

“I don’t always understand your part,” Fiona said.

“I am the voice that says ‘I know’ when someone tells me “This is too hard for me to hold on to by myself.” I am the soul who reminds other souls that they are not alone. I cannot bring them solutions, I cannot make their troubles disappear, I can only say that I hear them and I understand. Sometimes that’s enough.”

“Sometimes it’s not,” Fiona said.

Ten years ago I discovered historian Frances Yates through her fascinating account of the life of Giordano Bruno. What interested me the most was her defining the magical systems of Bruno, which he proposed should become a function of the Catholic Church, as a form of early psychology. In effect mysticism was treated of as a means of explaining the secrets of the unconscious mind – centuries before Freud proposed the notion of such a mental facility. I would ally Bruno to more contemporary theorists, such as Julian Jaynes‘ notion of the bicameral mind‘s evolution causing changes in how humans came to perceive reality.

I enjoy fantasy fiction that is not afraid to endorse ‘mythic consciousness’, as a legitimate way of approaching a story. The likes of Yates and Jaynes are rare in that they are academics happy to not condescend to pagan belief systems and mysticism. Of course for writers of the fantasy genre this is their bread and butter – but they also need to beware of that modern chauvenism towards early attempts to explain the world.

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret opens in the traditional manner of a fairy tale. A midnight dash on horseback to an isolated village. An infant child stolen away from the court of a cruel king, hidden in a safe home. What follows feels  traditional and surprisingly unique.

Fiona and Reed are raised as siblings by Damiana, the safe-keeper of the village of Tambleham. Only she and her sister Angeline are aware of the true identity of the child delivered to them by the rider from the capital Wodenderry, on the same night Damiana gave birth to her own child. As both women as safe-keepers the secret is safe with them, for that is their purpose, to carry the secrets of people that cannot be bourne alone. Of course some secrets are too difficult to hide. Reed is widely believed by the villagers in Tambleham to be the illegitimate heir to the throne, a claim that Damiana neither confirms or denies.

Fiona believes that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a safe-keeper herself. However, Thomas a truth-teller predicts that she her life will take her in a different direction. As safe-keepers cannot divulge a secret given  in confidence, truth-teller’s are incapable lying. Furious Fiona remains determined to prove Thomas wrong, but some secrets once revealed have a habit of changing everything.

What I enjoyed most about this book is how subtle the use of magic by author Sharon Shinn is. Safe-keepers and truth-tellers live according to certain mystical precepts and yet their roles in the community are akin to a confessor, or therapist. Shinn also introduces the idea of a dream-maker, a person who endures great suffering so that others can get their greatest wish, similar to the biblical notion of the scapegoat.

The domestic setting of the story I found remiscent of my favourite fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. I enjoy these kinds of novels, because fantasy I believe is simply an approach to story that embraces unreality. The overabundance of sword and sorcery tropes in fantasy fiction is quite limiting. One issue I have with this book is that the critical notices featured on the blurb mention Robin McKinley twice, an author I am not familiar with. Of course I am speaking to my own ignorance here, but I do think this book could have a wider appeal. While the story opens much like a fairy tale, the plot takes in the uglier side of country living, the miseries safe-keepers have to carry alone such as child abuse, or forced incest. Maybe Shinn does not need the controversy attracted by Tender Morsels, but this is a book with a lot to offer.

Gently told with rich storytelling.

In the men’s room, he finally took the trouble to examine the money and was encouraged to see the face of Ulysses S. Grant engraved on the front of each bill. That proved to him that this America, this other America, which hasn’t lived through September 11 or the war in Iraq, nevertheless has strong historical links to the America he knows. The question is: at what point did the two stories being to diverge?

First off apologies for the late posting. I was miles away from my trusty Asus this afternoon. While this is being published still within the borders of the prerequisite ‘day’, it is late and I hope you were not waiting in vain. Auster’s novel is a traumatized reaction to the events of September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. I found myself comparing it critically to a number of other writers, yet at the same time Man in the Dark is a statement confronting the failures of American liberalism in the wake of these horrific events in recent history.

August Brill is a man trying to hide from his past. Mourning the death of his wife, he lives with his daughter Miriam and granddaughter Katya. Further tragedies haunt this family, but they retreat into silence, or obsessions to escape the necessary catharsis.

Twinned to this narrative is the story of Owen Brick, a man transported to another America, torn apart by civil war. Several states have followed the example of New York and seceded from the United States. Brick finds himself an unwilling military recruit, ordered to assassinate the man responsible for the horrors being visited on the American people. He protests that he is only a magician and cannot bring himself to kill. The men who have chosen him threaten the lives of his loved ones back in the ‘real world’, if he does not comply. The target for assassination? A writer named August Brill.

I picked up this book as it describes the imaginings of a chronic insomniac. If you ever wondered how I have managed to read 46 titles in as many days, well now you know. Auster also refers to Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno as an explanation for his ‘many worlds’, premise. I took issue with his conclusion that Bruno was executed for the thesis of the plurality of worlds. I always understood the Vatican having ordered his death as his belief in Christian magick fell out of favour with the new pontiff Pope Clement VIII. There is an excellent book by Frances Yates on the subject if anyone is curious.

The world of Owen Brick is quickly established to be a fiction. I was strongly reminded of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark throughout, despite Auster employing the shadow of 9/11. The difference is that for Gray the fantasy world is just as ‘real’, as ours. Philip K. Dick would also do this on occasion, refusing to clarify which perspective of reality is the ‘true’ one. Auster instead describes this alternate America as a distraction from grief, with the endless film viewing of Katya and August fulfilling a similar function. Their shared tragedies must be evaded at all costs.

It is a slim book, perhaps I expected more meat on the bone. I have never read Auster before and I have heard nothing but good things. If anyone can recommend another title by him, I would love to try him out again.

Tomorrow – Scott Pilgrim!

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