Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Secret Country by Pamela Dean (1985)

I wanted to read The Secret Country because of reading Arcadia by Iain Pears. It's complicated (read the book) but Pears has an invented fantasy world that through some science fiction (rather than magic) becomes real.  As I read Arcadia, I kept thinking of this old favorite of mine, and decided to re-read the series.

Hidden fantasy worlds that are connected to ours are always one of my favorite (sub) genres.  I've always loved Alice (and find the Carroll haters with their need to talk about pedophilia and drugs distasteful and ludicrous). Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci is wonderful.  Narnia, of course.  Harry Potter is definitely the modern take on this old fantasy.  The Secret Country didn't really add anything new; Pamela Dean was genre-bending (like Arcadia seemed to be doing).  But she did take a children's genre, and although the main characters are children, made it into something adult.  Not adult as in The Magicians trilogy with its college-aged wizards having sex and doing drugs; rather adult in the sense that Dean was writing up, writing for adults.  I dont' know if the term literary fiction existed in 1986 when the book was published, but Dean's The Secret Country veers into the real of literary fiction with her careful and elegant use of language, her ability to explore the character's depth and emotions, the density of her prose.

I tend to like dense, puzzling books (Connie Willis, Diana Wynne Jones) that bloom afresh with each re-reading, and Dean has that quality in all the books I've read by her.  Although I haven't read any of her books in years, I remember those qualities in her books.  She also makes things emotionally difficult for her characters; this is in line more with Alice (although let's be honest, that's a prototype of this kind of book) than with Narnia (save for Eustace).  Those Pevensies seemed to fit into Narnia like a kid glove; their adventures were all outside their heads (Edmund arguably may also be an exception to this).  Laura & Ted & Ruth & Patrick& Ellen aren't exactly Eustace (or Edmund).  But they seem to get everything wrong, all the time.  This effects them physically, but it more effects them emotionally. It bothers them.    They know things they aren't supposed to (The number of steps to Fence's castle) and don't know things they should (how to fence, or that chocolate doesn't have sugar, or almost everyone's names and relationships).  This mentally turns them into something more unstable than they were when they stumbled into the real world that they had created as a fantasy game (at least they are unstable by the end of The Secrety Country).  That is what sets apart this book from Narnia or Nesbit.  That's the adult I'm talking about; that's what makes Dean such a complex writer and while I can appreciate and adore Naria, I can get deeply lost in Dean in a far different, less nostalgic way. (Diana Wynne Jones can fall into that category occasionally too; Lewis never does).

Dean is still a whimsical writer though; this isn't an Oprah book, all dark corners and abused children.  I don't think you can write a book about a magical world just around the corner from ours without having some shades of C.S. Lewis; but there's more than a bit of Nesbit at work here too.  There are five children, and the It is The Secret Country, as helpful and occasional spiteful as any psammead.  Dean's writing is magical that way.  It just occurred to me that a modern writer does this just as well (and maybe better sometimes):  Neil Gaiman.  They two writers are as different as night and day (or Aslan and the Cheshire Cat), but they definitely come from the same genus of writers (postmodern? Post-post modern?).  

On to The Hidden Land.

Note:  Whether on purpose or not (and I'm sort of disgusted with myself for being such a boring pedant), but The Secret Country is actually sort of a good metaphor for adolescence.   Like Laura, her brothers and cousins, young children play at being adults.  And like The Secret Country itself, when you reach adulthood, everything is almost the way you imagined it, but not quite right.  The well is pink instead of white, even though it's still a well.  Another example of the literary fiction I was talking about; the adult of this book.  Narnia has the Christian allegory (to quote Peanuts:  "bleah"); Dean takes us beyond allegory into deeper literary magic.

The Secret Country (The Secret Country, #1)The Secret Country by Pamela Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Children discovering a fantasy world in the wardrobe or down the rabbit hole is, well, as old as Alice. Pamela Dean does take this trope and turn it on its head (like some of Neil Gaiman's work) but rather makes it into something more adult. Her Secret Country trilogy, taken as a whole, veers into literary fiction-land without ever properly leaving fantasy; it's like a magical blurring of the lines betweent the worlds. Unlike Lewis or Carroll (but like the more modern Gaiman), Dean's dense prose, her careful, elegant use of language, and most of all her exploration of characters emotionally stability is what sets her work apart from those that came before, and makes it much more adult (like The Magicians but without the sex and drugs). When Laura & Ted & Ruth & Patrick & Ellen fall down the rabbit hole into the world they created as a fantasy game among themselves, like those Pevensie children, they are kings and queens (or at least prince and princesses), and like Peter, Susasn, Edmund and Lucy, the physical world is a threat. But Claudia, the White Witch of this book, fucks with the their heads too; emotionally stable before, the secret country is a worrisome, adult place that turns them into something else. That is what makes this book such a delight to read; it's contains deeper (literary) magic. It's not an Oprah book though, not all dark corners and abused children. I don't think you can write a book about a magical world just around the corner from ours without having some shades of C.S. Lewis; but there's more than a bit of Nesbit at work here too. There are five children, and the It is The Secret Country, as helpful and occasional spiteful as any psammead. Jo Walton suggests on that the three books in this series should be read as a whole; I heartily agree.

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