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Black Juice
Margo Lanagan
Gollancz, 230 pages

Black Juice
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
SF Site Review: White Time

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Ray Bradbury found a place on high school English reading lists because his vividly descriptive (sometimes verging on the nonsensical) prose so perfectly echoes youthful exuberance. Plus, Bradbury's fantastical settings provide a more palatable way to present such mature subjects as imperialism, technological self-destruction, and the general stupidity of humanity to immature minds. Similarly, no offense to Ray, but his work is a lot more accessible to kids and reluctant readers in particular than, say, Dostoyevsky.

This was in the days before the Young Adult category was invented, and Bradbury no doubt doesn't think of himself as a young adult writer any more than he considers himself a science fiction writer. If they get it fine, if they don't, well I'm sure Ray doesn't give a goddamn (though perhaps one thing teachers like about him these days is that his epithets never get stronger than that, which seems kind of youthfully innocent these days).

I was thinking of this as I was reading Margo Lanagan's short story collection, Black Juice, which quite inexplicably is classified as juvenile fiction. Though Lanagan is perhaps closer to Angela Carter (to whom she is often compared) than Bradbury, they do share the same strange landscapes just once removed from everyday reality, frequently seen through the eyes of an adolescent narrator, or involving an adolescent protagonist. But, like Bradbury, the subject matter is hardly limited to adolescence and my natural cynicism leads me to suspect that those who consider this "juvenile" fiction "safe" for younger readers probably haven't read it. Once they encounter a youngish narrator and a fantastical situation, it gets written off as "kid-stuff."

Which, of course, makes it all the more subversive.

One wonders what the archetypical prim library matron would make of a story in which a pair of assassins target clowns, but only of them is left laughing ("Red Nose Day")? Or where a young girl is slowly sucked down into a tar pit as punishment for some transgression to her husband ("Singing My Sister Down") in a tale that takes the themes of Shirley Jackson's iconical "The Lottery" to a more insidious level? Or "My Lord's Man" in which a nobleman retrieves a straying wife from gypsies suggests marital relationships are defined by something other than happily ever after?

"Sweet Pippit" depicts a great escape, not of humans, but pachyderms in search of a former human master to lead them into the promised land, except unlike Moses, no one is sure such a place exists, though it makes the journey nonetheless exciting. Another tale with religious overtones is "House of the Many," just the sort of thing fundamentalists wouldn't get as an attack on unquestioning belief because of its oblique approach. In a vaguely African setting, a family's dire straits leave no course but to put themselves under the thumb of a sort of village witch doctor. The boy escapes to the city, where his country wits gain him position. When he returns to his village, he realizes that what was once wondrous to him as a child is actually corrupt and pathetic. It is, literally in this story, like the difference in sound and technique between playing a squeezebox and an accordion.

Another kind of escape is detailed in "The Point of Roses," included in the new Gollancz Orion edition for the first time. The escape here is from suffocating family relationships that, thanks to collective youthful yearning, somehow manages to magically transform into something more positive.

"Wooden Bride" (a title that is said to have come from the author's misreading of the front page of Modern Bride magazine) is a satire of the religious significance of the wedding ceremony that allegorizes a woman's apprehension in navigating matrimonial uncertainties. "Earthly Uses" is another coming of age story, about the transitions necessitated by the death of a kindly caregiver and the need to move on from less-than-beneficent parental authority. "Rite of Spring," perhaps the weakest story here in that the ending is telegraphed early, is a metaphor for the sometimes excruciating transition to adulthood, as well as the satisfaction of surviving it.

"Yowlinin" is a tale of unrequited love, in which a fairy creature is forced by circumstances to commit terrible deeds in hopes of winning a fair-haired boy's affection. In the post-ecological disaster of "Perpetual Light," a young woman attends her grandmother's funeral, at some considerable inconvenience, expense, and danger to herself. In a strange way (and if you haven't noticed by now, everything in Lanagan's fiction happens in strange ways), the seeds of existence reveal their cyclical nature.

While most of these stories seemingly focus on the concerns of late adolescence, that doesn't make them "juvenile." Certainly, it is inappropriate for the younger end of the Harry Potter set, not because there's anything objectionable about it or graphic (though there are a few gruesome parts), but simply that all but the more precocious simply won't get it. Only adults who have managed to survive life's slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, as Lanagan's characters do for the most part, will.

Copyright © 2006 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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