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The Trokeville Way
Russell Hoban
Alfred A. Knopf, 117 pages

The Trokeville Way
Russell Hoban
Russell Hoban is the author of dozens of books for readers of all ages, including the Frances the Badger picture books for children and Turtle Diary for adults. He is the winner of the 1982 John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the 1983 Ditmar Award for his classic science fiction novel, Riddley Walker.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

Thirteen-year-old Nick Hartley is not quite an outcast, but definitely an outsider, and worried that he is a failure. After losing yet another fight with a schoolyard bully, he is on his way home when he encounters a strange concertina-playing ex-magician named Moe Nagic, who has an unusual jigsaw puzzle to sell. The puzzle is made from a watercolor painting called "The Trokeville Way." What makes it unusual is that it's a picture one can actually go into, like another world. Moe agrees to sell Nick the puzzle, together with the gyroscope that will help him move in and out of it, but warns him that things in the puzzle-world aren't the way they look from the outside. The bridge in the picture isn't a bridge; it's a "brudge." The little wood above it isn't a little wood, it's a "little would." Further on is a "mise" -- a maze; beyond that lies the town of Trokeville. The only way to get to Trokeville is to perform a "troke" -- a combination, Moe thinks, of a trick and a stroke, though he admits he isn't really sure. He's been going into the puzzle for years, but he's never gotten that far.

Nick takes the puzzle home, and uses the gyroscope to find his way in. The puzzle-world is even stranger than Moe has described, a place "heavy with dread." Odder still, there are people in it: a woman half-seen through the trees of the little would, and Harry Buncher, the schoolyard bully, on the brudge. Harry inside the puzzle-world is just like Harry in real life: he picks a fight with Nick, and manages to smash the gyroscope that is the only way out. Nick is stranded, lost in a bizarre other-reality that may be real or may all be just a figment of his imagination, with no idea of how to extricate himself.

The Trokeville Way is a slim book, more novella than novel, but it packs a powerful, creepy punch. The discordant atmosphere of the puzzle-world is compellingly evoked:

"Everything had a loneliness about it, the way the world must have looked at the beginning, when there were no people and the first rains filled up the oceans. The sky was rumbling with thunder and flickering with lightning. The... thundery twilight seemed to be holding its breath and everything I looked at was quivering a little as if it might suddenly let go and disappear."
The novel is heavily symbolic. Each of the puzzle-world's features -- the brudge, the little would, the mise, Trokeville itself -- are representations of the hurdles of adolescence. Throughout his journey, Nick encounters people from his past or present who have gotten stuck at one stage or another. He himself keeps moving forward; eventually he stumbles out of the puzzle-world, without ever having gotten to Trokeville. Trokeville, it turns out, is not inside the puzzle-world at all: it's a place within oneself, reachable only through rage. Once Nick discovers this, he is able to face and finally defeat his nemesis, Harry Buncher. Success, Hoban seems to be saying (bucking the current New Age trend), isn't just accepting who you are, but accepting who you are and being able to beat your enemies to a pulp.

The novel would have profited, I think, from some amplification at the beginning and the end: Nick's encounter with Moe Nagic, a pivotal character, is a bit sketchy, and the book ends a little too suddenly. But the central portion, in which Nick struggles through the creepy world of the puzzle, is fully realized and beautifully written, making The Trokeville Way a fascinating and thoroughly worthwhile read.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. For an excerpt of her Avon EOS novel, The Arm of the Stone, visit her Web site.

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