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The Onion Girl, Charles de Lint, TOR, 2001, 508 pp.
The Onion Girl might be Charles de Lint's ultimate Newford novel, in both senses of the word, pinnacle and final. Newford is the fictional city de Lint has used as a setting for his novels and short stories in the last dozen or so years. It's a city with many mysteries about it and a whole lot of magic, and de Lint's readers have gotten to know many people in Newford over the course of so many books. These people usually share friendship with a woman named Jilly Coppercorn, a woman who has brought people together, created much laughter and joy, and appreciated every chance to observe the fantastical right in her own city. The Onion Girl is de Lint's chance to tell Jilly's own story, and since Jilly has been part of almost every Newford tale in the past, this book has a wealth of characters who are all already well-known (usually as the protagonist of their own book or short story). Now that Jilly gets her own book, it's hard to tell where de Lint can go next with Newford, although I certainly hope that he will find some niche as of yet unexplored in this wonderful city. The Onion Girl itself is a self-assured book, one of the better Newford books, and all the more fascinating for the way it manages to keep track of so many ongoing threads. Newcomers to the Newford books will still get a sense of the intricate web of friendships that Jilly inhabits, and hopefully become motivated to find the previous books.
The book begins with Jilly Coppercorn in the hospital, struck by a car in a hit-and-run accident, narrating in first person. Her body bruised and broken, she finds herself able to enter the dreamlands while asleep. Despite concern on the part of her friends, she becomes more withdrawn from the harsh realities of her wrecked body, more drawn to the dreamlands, in which her spirit is still youthful and able to do what she wants it to. In the meantime, someone has broken into Jilly's loft and destroyed a large part of her life's work: all of the paintings depicting magical inhabitants of Newford. The Onion Girl has a number of other plot threads intersecting with this one. Some internal sections of the chapters labelled "Jilly" are in fact told from third person point of view, following various of her friends as they try to care for Jilly, discover the vandalized loft, and so forth. Other chapters are labelled "Joe": Joe is a friend of Jilly's who is long-lived and not really human. He is wise in the ways of the dreamland, and he is trying to help Jilly understand what is happening. The remaining bulk of the book is told in chapters headed "Raylene". As we discover, Raylene is Jilly's younger sister, and Raylene has led a difficult and violent life. Raylene harbours a good deal of hatred for Jilly, after Jilly ran away from an abusive home situation, somewhat unknowingly leaving Raylene to bear the brunt of the abuse. Raylene's sections begin in her childhood days and gradually catch up the present day in which the main narrative is told.
It's hard to convey the depth of characterization in The Onion Girl. Admittedly, de Lint has had about a decade to polish the depiction of some of these people, especially Jilly herself (despite never having been the protagonist of a novel before). Also, Newford fans have a background knowledge of this group of people that would be the envy of any writer, and as I said before, the complexity of the relationships would be immediately obvious even to a Newford newcomer. In de Lint's favour is the remarkable ability of the book to show us even characters who have never been written about in the Newford books before. A large part of the effect of the novel stems from our understanding and queasy sympathy with Raylene. Raylene does some horrible things, and she smashes into the Newford community with little regard for what has been built there (and what the audience will think of her for doing that). De Lint carefully constructs the question: how will Raylene be changed by her experience of Newford? In essence, can she be redeemed? De Lint makes us see that the journey is always a hard one, difficult choices have to be made at every turn, and that the outcome is always worth it. Once gained, victories can be multiplied in the lives of others, and that is perhaps what Newford has always been about.
The Onion Girl is a wonderful novel, full of hope and despair, pain and healing, a sense of the wonder of every day life, and chock full of all the Newford regulars. De Lint does a remarkable job of giving all of Jilly's friends a moment in the spotlight here, helping, laughing together, and showing how communities are always more than an exercise in enlightened self-interest. Recommended to all, even those who have not read any de Lint books before. But be warned, you might get hooked on Newford!
Last modified: December 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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