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White Time
Margo Lanagan
Allen & Unwin Australia, 264 pages

White Time
Margo Lanagan
Margo Lanagan was born in 1960 and grew up in the Hunter Valley (NSW) and Melbourne. She travelled a bit, studied history at university in Perth and Sydney and has worked as a kitchen-hand and encyclopedia seller, as well as spending ten years as a freelance book editor. She is now a technical writer as well as a creative one. She lives in Sydney with her partner and their two sons.

ISFDB Bibliography
MirrorDanse Books

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

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Margo Lanagan was finalist for the Ditmar (Australia's Hugo, more or less), shortlisted for the Convenor's Award, shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier's Award, eight-time finalist and one-time winner of the Aurealis. Peter McNamara selected her story "White Time" as one of the ten best stories in the past decade of Australian speculative fiction for his Wonder Years collection. The University of Canterbury graduate-level course on young adult literature lists her novel, Touching Earth Lightly, as a required text alongside Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass. You've heard of her, haven't you?

Unless you're an Aussie yourself, you probably haven't. The purpose of this (and most of my reviews, since most reviewers focus on the popular) is help remedy the situation; unfortunately Allen & Unwin has only a limited distribution of Margo Lanagan books in North America and White Time is not among them. Unfortunately also, I haven't been much help, working on this review over the past two years. And last on the list of Lanagan-unfortunately's is that, publishers love "meteoric rises to fame" because that's all we readers seem to pay attention to -- that and the recently dead.

So why, besides a surfeit of awards (I don't know what they all mean either), should you recognize Margo Lanagan? Let me answer that question with the question: what do readers of speculative fiction hunger for? To paraphrase Lanagan:

"What is the aspect of the tasting that you enjoyed the least?
"The way white time scrambles your brain."
-- from the title story, "White Time"
Scrambled brains or the displacement of the norm is exactly what readers of SF rightly take pride in. Few do it better than this relative "newcomer" to the field. Perhaps her extensive experience in the young adult field doesn't allow her readers breathing room to think. Once her shorts get underway, and you have to sprint stay up -- not fiction for the faint of heart.

Do I mean she is all action-packed and no thought? Not at all. She can turn on the literary sensibility with the best of writers. When I lived in Mexico, I chatted with a Mexican who asked where I lived (Iowa, at that time) and was upset I didn't have the foggiest of where her friend lived. She tongue-lashed, saying I should know all the ways -- apparently half a Mexican aphorism I've taken to heart (if not in ways that would have me pull out a map of Iowa to memorize all of its many small towns).

This all-the-ways characterizes Lanagan's White Time collection well. It covers genre and literature maps in theme, subject matter and stylistic change-up with equal panache. It's like they say in Iowa (or in every state of the union I've lived in): if you don't like the weather, stick around for a few days.

Among the many mysterious things Octavia Butler said, she suspected someone in our Clarion class would win the Nebula. Did she mean Margo? It's fruitless to speculate with so much talent in our class (editorially Sheree Renee Thomas was finalist for World Fantasy award and had a few novel projects that caught my sensawunda eye; Tom Sweeney has gone on to be a Shamus finalist and may become an important short mystery writer (novelist if he's ever satisfied with one), tackling mystery as only a SF writer could; our Writer of the Future winner Stephen Woodworth has his new novel forthcoming and if he doesn't become a popular favorite among the genre core and the few literary that appreciate ironic turns of phrases, it will be a shame; and other wild talents sadly yet to emerge from the morass of slush piles -- including our class favorite who may be hiding out from the IRS or CIA).

But let's establish a case for the unjustified obscurity of Margo Lanagan. I may know and love Margo, but to show that I am unbiased, I offer a selected and focused patchwork of blurbs (much as I malign them, I'm almost as avid a reader of blurbs as I am of stories):

"With extraordinary grace of language and almost surgical precision..."
-- Isobelle Carmody

"One of the most striking features of Lanagan's writing is its preciseness and detail... dense with meaning and containing many subtleties..."
-- Cathryn Crowe

"She brings fantasy to life and drops it on your front porch, like a memory of the real."
-- Greg Bear

I like Bear's phrase best for what I'm getting at: "a memory of the real" -- how the real can seem hazy by memory. Alex, aged 14, of Canberra, ACT, astutely agrees: "The best thing about White Time is the way Margo Lanagan has been able to produce divine realism in an unreal world." In that way, her writing is a cross between Raymond Carver and Kelly Link: you will not find throw-away details nor excess fat (Raymond Carver) but the well-chosen details can be a dreamlike haziness at times (Kelly Link). Compare one beautiful detail against one well-chosen yet paradoxically not specific and dreamlike detail:
"The wardrobe was as I remembered it, still sweet with grass-sachets against the moths and tawny beetles,"
versus
"The bedchamber was dimmed, but even so I could see how bare and impersonal it now was. There were no clothes cast on the floor; the princess's hunting trophies, mounted heads and horns, had been stripped from the walls."
-- both from "Dedication"
We get a keen sense of setting and a rare character from these descriptive passages. I am reminded of Kelly Link's hazy setting yet singling in on a potent telling detail that reveals so much. But to compare Lanagan to Carver or Link is misleading since she truly has her own voice: once learned, it's addictive enough that you'll find yourself speaking and writing Lanaganese, so inventive and distinctly Aussie that even her fellow Australians will discover the once old territory made new (see quote below from Damien.... As the English-speaking world collides and mingles on the internet, we will no doubt mourn the loss of regionalisms, but maybe those Crazy Canadians, Englishmen, South Afrikaners, Aussie-mates will finally spell colOr and skilLful correctly).

But Link and Carver are not the only comparisons that need to be made. Alice McDermott won the Pulitzer Prize for her experimental novel, Charming Billy, about a dead main character: an interesting but failed experiment, in my non-Pulitzer opinion, but that's what literature's here for: to do the different: better to fail spectacularly than write another forgotten crowd-pleaser. Lanagan does McDermott one better in "Dedication" with two dead characters which, in a way, add a more powerful dynamic as we see the deaths and spats of queen and princess, mother and daughter, through the eyes of their servant groom.

I don't know which of us was the tougher critic at Clarion, she or I, so since she couldn't very well be her own worst critic, I stepped up to the job, and who should now be her only critiquer in the Americas? Even though she's a friend, it would hardly be fitting for me to let up on her in a book review where readers expect a fair discernment to help them decide whether to part with their beer money (let this be a lesson to writers who actually want me to critique their books -- writers must be as crazy as Canadian SF review ezines).

As vicious and vile as I've just made myself out to be, I don't remember loving "Dedication" so much. A groom has to dress the body of his princess before the king arrives and then attend the christening of his own child. I have nothing but high praise for this achingly beautiful story: little wonder it was one of the many nominees for an award that year. So let's move on to a story where I can be as mean as promised (why is cruelty so much easier than kindness?).

Peter McNamara, no doubt, selected "White Time" as one of the ten best stories in the past down-under decade for its sense of wonder and its harkening back to Robert A. Heinlein's heyday of SF juveniles. [Here are excerpts of this, "Night Lily," and "Wealth".] Strangely, I thought rereading "White Time" would be a chore due to its YA focus: it wasn't as though it still lacks the subtle power of her more "adult" works like "Dedication." For a reader to reread a story with interest, however, may hint more at a story teller's ability than analysis.

Still, with a YA as the lead story, despite a genre that historically embraces fiction for all ages, "White Time" may have lessened the impact that these stories might have otherwise had if readers dismissed them as "juvenile" fiction. Maybe the publisher was banking on Heinlein or on Lanagan's history as a YA writer or on showing off her ability to write Lanaganesque adventure. Whichever, it's a shame for the incredible range of these stories to be categorized. But then, with stories so diverse, which story would not have left the wrong impression?

Although "White Time" has enough theme of interest to the adult, the characters behave their age, which can be an annoyance to adults. Sheneel is "occupation-tasting," checking out the "White Time Labs" though it's nothing cool like what her friends are doing with fashion and celebrity dance music. At the lab, Sheneel suctions up morphing figures caught in the netherworld of time and sends them back on their merry way, but if you stay in white time too long you can get caught up in different time periods. Sheneel turns in what will turn out to be gross understatements but the same papers we turned in in our youths: "This was a very interesting assignment. I got to see all the interesting things White Time do in the white time reservoirs, met lots of interesting people and learned a lot." Thankfully, this is not how Lanagan writes outside of her characters.

"White Time" sounds like SF, but is it? Damien, aged 15, Canberra, ACT sagely notes that "[t]he stories do not belong to any one genre, some verge on science fiction yet never quite get there, others tak[e] a realistic teenage drama line yet end... with twists you'd normally find in a completely different style." "White Time" extrapolates the need to recapture all the time travelers like H.G. Wells' who didn't take Earth's position into consideration when traveling through time. However, also like Wells, the hand-waving is probably not something that a hard SF man like Greg Bear would label SF.

When Lanagan was tossing out names for her story collection, she asked the class what we thought of "Tell and Kiss" since a lot of the stories had a romantic motif. I suggested "Love and Squalor" as a tribute to Salinger. She sagely ignored this advice. Awkward as "Tell and Kiss" may sound to the usual order of the mind, she had a good reason to reverse the order. In what-might-have-been-a-title story, my Salinger reference wasn't too far off the mark. The narrator reminded me of Holden Caulfield in his strange adolescent yet adult tumult in the world. Here the adolescent worked well for me with only the merest glimmer of Holden's cynicism: in Lanagan's narrator Evan's battling the "bulge." Unlike in our world, he fights fat through a realistic psychobabble of happy warriors escorting fat globules out of the body (though somewhere in California some quack has no doubt set up office to do just this). Evan has supposedly won the battle, having lost weight and gone off, therapy but he fears the weight is coming back...: but girls, what is it with you and romance? You're too quick to kiss. Stretch out those tender awkward moments to their true length and we boys will be happy. Maybe when you're ready, you're ready, but we boys have to build up the guts, so to speak (besides if boys kissed girls when they were ready, they would no longer be ready, now would they?)

One scrambled-brain story that threw every Clarion classmate into paroxysms of dizzy joy, won the Aurealis was "The Queen's Notice," a story that experienced readers envy virginal readers' first time. I refuse to tell first time watchers of the movie Heavenly Creatures anything, so they can feel the building shock that I felt. I will say that Lanagan portrays the male entity far better than most women.

The "Big Rage" is a story that reminded me of Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See". In Fowler's work, we have a narrator who prefers the company of simians over experiencing her husband's misdeeds. In "Big Rage," after a spat with her spouse, the narrator runs into a knight -- not shining in armor but injured and speaking unintelligibly. His manners are uncouth, he eats like a horse, but there's a primal beauty to his brutish ways and a magic that unfolds within her and to the foggy shore that when her husband reappears.... I discovered through the author, Fowler's had an unreliable narrator. Is this the same? Both share negative titles. Both go for the untamed. Fowler's is more meticulous and beautiful in setting detail that her unreliability never came in doubt for this reader -- at least since the husband was "cleansing" [my word] in response to murders. Lanagan's has a surreal Link landscape with damsels and knights -- both real and costumed. We get less description of the marital scenario with Lanagan except the narrator's disgruntled feelings, but we get more narrative surprises along the way: perhaps Lanagan's crowning achievement (apart from the range of her story-telling verve). If we are to rely on our narrators, I wonder how Homosapiens homosapiens survives -- in which case, I'll be sure not to aggravate the species problem. But if we are not to rely on our narrators, I would like more substantiating evidence that demonstrates their unreliability: i.e. contradictions. Maybe it's because I'm male or simian and need more hints -- and more grooming to get all these fleas out of my fur.

Probably the main reason Damien of Canberra went on to say, "as good as the stories were, sometimes I felt there were a lot of new words used by the author which tended to disrupt the storyline as I tried to work out what they meant" was "The Night Lily" which follows Chenko, a young boy who finds a friend when his older brother dies in an urban war -- presumably not as an active participant. The friend is "innards" -- only it has its own organs. Chenko still goes to school and still comes home to play with his "innards." Chenko's "Parda" dies (he also has a "Marda" as do all beings not sprouted from test tubes). I am again reminded of Karen Joy Fowler: early on, she couldn't sell a story -- the editors called it plotless -- until she killed someone. So death creates its own "plot" here -- a point I didn't realize until I had to summarize it: so good on Lanagan. In fact, looking over these I discover that few do have plots, and I surprise myself to notice only now: plot as in an action flowing event to event dictated and sustained by theme and character development. It's unlikely many others would notice, either. We had a few plot-happy writers at Clarion but these failed to notice. The nearly plotless story is vogue now, but I think even Lanagan would have sneaked by a few of these stories to editors of the pulp era as well. Nor does this prevent Lanagan from writing the best story I've read in some time. But let's finish dissecting "The Night Lily" first.

This is the story I gave poor Margo the most hell over. I misread a word late at night and was confused from page one. I didn't even know there was a war! Rereading the story years later, I was still flummoxed by the lack of setting and the use of italics in certain sections, rereading the early passages a number of times before gritting my teeth and bearing onward. The ending does pay off (but why are girls always the salvation of men? I'm not denying it, but asking), which makes me think that maybe genre readers are more patient than most, which may be why it is difficult to talk others into giving it a try. The story falls short of becoming important in my eyes for the very reason that it threw me off: the italics convey no new voice or perspective that the unitalicized already covers, and the lack of setting (which is a minor point and could be understood considering the no doubt war-inured). If you're going to throw me off the scent, wonderful, but every bit has to pull its weight -- a weight unveiled by comparing the ending to the various sections of the story. Consider this a tongue-lashing of myself as well, for failing to be a good enough critic at the workshop to point it out.

What a meanie. But hold on to your britches there, Missie or Mister. "The Boy Who Didn't Yearn" is a masterpiece. I pulled out my The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and perused the contents, perused the honorable mentions and did not find Margo Lanagan, where she should have appeared at least two to three times in either the contents or the honorable mentions, which leads me to deduce, since this story was easily of a caliber to get recognized, that Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling didn't come across this collection: their task is a daunting one and you can't blame them for missing good stuff. If an American press picks up the collection, I hope the omission is quickly remedied. A story as close to perfection as "The Boy Who Didn't Yearn" is a rarity that should spout readily from the lips of any well-read reader of the genre.

"The Boy Who Didn't Yearn" is a title that threw me off the scent: in a surprising, refreshing way. Is the story about a boy? Not exactly. Does he not yearn? Not exactly. But I'll try not to steal your joy of discovery by effervescing too much of my own. Tess, a girl -- another joy! I didn't discover she was a girl until later, a joy since not too many women understand how close to their humanity men lie. Tess can read people's fates because it hangs off them in the way they hold their body, in the way strings of shadows of friends and relatives who shout their inadequacies and yearnings. Tess' mother also yearns. Her husband is essentially a vegetable after his stroke, and the mother wishes her husband could grow whole and independent once more. Tess is disgusted by her mother's inability to face the hard reality. Until a new boy comes to town. Lanagan could have gone soft and sappy but she didn't. She went for the beautifully sad and hopeful ending like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Consider your genre knowledge incomplete until you've read this story.

Anecdotally, for all you trivia gatherers and future graduate student thesis writers, "The Boy Who Didn't Yearn" wasn't a Clarion story, per se, but she gave a few of us the opportunity to critique it. I do not recall my reaction to the story then. I was probably cruel and vicious. The next story has a more interesting history. If memory serves, Gordon van Gelder told us of his prejudice against elf stories even though he just bought humorous one from Esther Friesner, I believe. So, being writers, we all wanted to write elf stories. "Midsummer Mission" may be the only elf story to actually have come about, but memory grows rusty.

Unlike the previous story, "Midsummer Mission" gives a clue to itself in its title -- if you happen to know any "midsummer"'s in literature, that is. The story begins with the scrambled-brain beginning, but unlike "The Night Lily" or "The Queen's Notice," the scrambling doesn't serve the story as well since the story is a fairly straight forward one about how cupid elves do their "duties," so to speak. As a former sailor boy myself who occasionally speaks Sailor verbosely, some of the language didn't ring true, but the story is cute and will no doubt win the hearts of many readers who would rip my typing fingers off were I to say otherwise.

Structurally, "Welcome Blue" is like "Dedication" but simpler in its beauty. Eleanor has just gotten a job snipping "Welcome Blue" flowers for Quaid. Everyone is going to see the arrival of the gods but Quaid who ignores the obnoxious kids yelling and waving from the road. Again, the question of plot recurs, but amazingly she keeps us interested in the characters: the dynamic of the blue collar world and the upper class woman in a mauve dress who wants but Quaid refuses to sell the flowers. Lanagan rewards the patient workers rather than the noisy merry-makers off to see the wizards. The story also betrays her love for the hard working classes.

"Wealth" rounds out the collection, invalidating Matt Peckham's bold yet mostly legitimate claim that "In genre fiction, families are often either terrorized victims of chainsaw wielding maniacs, or nostalgic bubbly after-school-special caricatures wrapped in kid-safe behaviors and words." That family is largely unexplored and at times unrealistic territory in SF may be blamed on H.G. Wells who didn't believe in the institution of family outside the government. "Wealth" gives a lazy, mother-preferred, dead-beat brother that the sister has to bail out of jail by risking her occupational respectability. Her occupation? Hair dresser. Before you laugh, note that in this world, hair is wealth: hence, the story title. By far, this is the most culturally rich, world-building a strange sort of feudal system that rebels attempt to overturn by throwing flour and paint. But I have to take exception with her conclusion, which I hope is more accident than purpose, which would disappoint as well: a revolution against a repressive yet not seemingly cruel regime revolts without taking into account the death toll, so how can these rebels bring about better regime? Apart from its creaky conclusion, the story is a rare breed of literary realism and speculation.

Should you own this collection? Are you interested in writers who take chances: in narrative device and style? Are you willing to sit through stories that may not be to your taste for stories that are? With Lanagan's all-the-way range and dexterity, I cannot imagine a reader out there who would not fall head over heels for a few, and admire aspects of the rest -- as with any writer capable of writing various literary and genre realms. Which stories you choose will say more of your character than Lanagan's (except for me and my wholly objective taste). The blurbs don't feel like hyperbole. They actually feel like the authors thought about the author's contribution. Isobelle Carmody writes, "it is impossible to read this compelling collection without being shattered, amused, astonished, entranced and ultimately... altered." This alteration for me does what all good and honest books should do: give you an intangible sense of the author's character. I compared Lanagan to Carver, Link and Fowler but the links are tenuous in that Lanagan has a style and voice unique to Lanagan. It wouldn't surprise me that young Aussie authors aren't already trying on her voice.

In an alternate universe, in the memory of the real, where Trent Walters got off his lazy arse and reviewed the book in a timely manner, and a batch Lanagan's White Time fell into the clutches of the American taste-makers, Gardner Dozois would have honorable-mentioned both "Welcome Blue" and "White Time"; Ellen Datlow would have either added "The Queen's Notice" to the contents or honorable-mentioned it (David Hartwell would have definitely included it in his fantasy collection); Terri Windling without blinking would have included "The Boy Who Didn't Yearn" and might have included "Welcome Blue" as well in the honorables. In the awards industry, Lanagan would have been too new a face to win anything but "The Queen's Notice" and "The Boy Who Didn't Yearn" voters would have split the slim Lanagan awareness league to have landed no meaningful accumulation of votes. But maybe we don't need an alternate universe. Maybe the next time a Lanagan collection comes out, American readers will have their eyes open. They may not have long to wait.

Copyright © 2003 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for SFsite.com, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.


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