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The Onion Girl
Charles de Lint
Tor Books, 512 pages

The Onion Girl
Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint has been writing urban fantasy, mixing elements of Native American and Celtic folklore, for a long time. Many of his earlier stories, such as Moonheart, Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon (both later republished together as Jack of Kinrowan), Ascian in Rose, Westlin Wind and Ghostwood (later collected and republished as the single volume Spiritwalk) explored this, using the city of Ottawa as a backdrop. The fictional city of Newford became the stage for novellas such as "Ghosts of Wind and Shadows", "Our Lady of the Harbour", "The Wishing Well", The Dreaming Place; short story collections such as Dreams Underfoot and The Ivory and the Horn; and novels such as Memory and Dream, Trader, and Someplace to be Flying.

Charles de Lint Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Forests of the Heart
SF Site Reading List: Charles de Lint
SF Site Review: Jack of Kinrowan
SF Site Review: Moonlight and Vines, A Newford Collection
SF Site Review: Someplace to be Flying
Information about the Tamson House Mailing List
One Tamson House
Newford Chronicles

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

A number of SF and Fantasy authors are noted for their rock and roll sub-texts -- Lucius Shepherd and Elizabeth Hand come immediately to mind, and recently Gwyneth Jones began a new fantasy series steeped in the ethos of rock music. But perhaps no one else consistently weaves musical references into the underpinnings of their tales like Charles de Lint, which is perhaps attributable in part to his also being a performing musician. In response to reader requests for more about the tunes that inspire him, de Lint has begun making it a practice to include a preface to his novels listing what he's been listening to lately. Even the musically astute might find this handy if they didn't make the immediate connection that the title is taken from a song performed by fellow Canadian Holly Cole. Particularly intriguing is de Lint's suggestion that Cole consider covering Fred Eaglesmith (another Canuck who sings bent country western) whose song "It Was You" plays a part in the narrative. If you don't have a clue who either of these relatively obscure (at least in pop terms) artists are, the first thing you should do is invest in a couple of their CDs. While you don't really have to be familiar with them to get into de Lint's novel, it's all part of the experience.

Besides music of the Celtic and alt-country variety, the de Lint experience is rooted in the so-called urban fantasy setting usually populated by musicians, sketchers, writers, and other artistes in which "normal" life somehow quite naturally becomes interchangeable with faerie realms. The fictional town of Newford and its cast of recurring characters exemplify this motif. As the latest volume in the Newford series, The Onion Girl effectively pairs the whimsy of a reflecting fairie spirit world with the horrific lingering damage done to victims of childhood sexual abuse.

The adults in question are Jilly Coppercorn, a former street person turned painter (who has appeared in previous Newford tales) and Raylene, the sister Jilly left behind to escape their brother's sexual assaults. Unfortunately, the assaults don't stop when Jilly leaves, they simply switch to Raylene -- leaving the younger sister extremely bitter over her abandonment. Bitter enough to seek revenge when the opportunity presents itself.

Jilly is the Onion Girl:

"Pull back the layers of my life, and you won't find anything at the core. Just a broken child. A hollow girl."
While Jilly's childhood has left her psychologically broken, a hit and run car accident leaves her physically broken as well. As Jilly lies paralyzed in a hospital bed, her spirit roams an "otherworld" that, once an inspiration for her paintings, has become a refuge from the reality of her physical condition. The temptation to remain somewhere where she retains mobility (and also youth) is understandably strong. But she cannot escape the need to return to heal her broken body -- or an equally broken psyche -- in the "World As It Is."

While Jilly was rescued from life on the street to make use of a talent that helped provide a meaningful life with a cadre of caring friends, Raylene hasn't been so fortunate. Together with her "tough-as-nails" best friend Pinky, who taught her how to fight off her brother with a switch-blade, Raylene ekes out a marginal existence that starts with running scams involving prospective johns who wind up with considerably less than what they thought they were bargaining for. Then they live off of Pinky's minor success as a porn star. A short period of normality in which Raylene does honest work and develops marketable computer programming skills is shattered by the murder of her boyfriend. But Raylene shares the faerie blood of her sister, and during a period when Pinky is in jail, learns that both she and Pinky are capable of crossing over to the otherworld. In the form of wolves.

And that's where they encounter Jilly, and Raylene embarks upon a plan of revenge on the sister who left her alone and defenseless.

The faerie world serves as a metaphor for the grounding spirituality in which both Jilly and Raylene work out their psychological difficulties. This being a de Lint version of a fairy tale, there is a happy ending of a sort, but de Lint is much too good a storyteller to rely on a simplistic happily-ever-after scenario. While at times some of the narrative notions borders on simplistic pop-psychobabble along the lines of "working through your pain" and "choosing the right path" -- whatever any of that crap really means -- de Lint may teeter over, but he never crosses the line into sappyness. His characters may venture into faerie land, but they live in "The World As It Is." And that's not always the easiest place to deal with.

Perhaps de Lint is speaking for himself as well when he has Jilly say,

"...I'm determined to show through my art that there are alternatives to the way the world is these days... I truly believe that if we do our best to live a good life, to treat each other with kindness and respect, we can make the world a better place. The faerie are a representation of that..."

Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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