When Jilly Coppercorn becomes a victim of a hit-and-run driver, her happy life as a popular Newford artist comes to a screeching halt. Half of her body, including her painting hand, no longer works properly, and the prospect of a long recovery, despite supportive friends, depresses her. Her dreams - the only escape she enjoys - connect her to friend Sophie's dreamland of Mabon. De Lint introduces yet another intriguing character, the raunchy, wild and furious Raylene, as dark as Jilly is light, who deepens the mystery. Is she Jilly's shadow self, or a connection to a past Jilly would rather forget? This crazy-quilt fantasy moves from the outer to the inner world with amazing ease and should satisfy new and old fans of this prolific and gifted storyteller, whose ability to peel away layers of story could earn him the title "The Onion Man."
Since Charles de Lint created the city of Newford and peopled it with his fascinating array of residents - artists and musicians, writers and professors, dreamers, philanthropists, mystics, wanderers and denizens of the street - few of its residents have won the hearts and excited the imaginations of de Lint's readers as much as the enigmatic Jilly. "Relentlessly cheerful," as one friend describes her near the start of The Onion Girl, Jilly is the backbone of Newford, holding her diverse network of friends together through good times and bad through her sheer force of will and high spirits.
But in the first novel to focus primarily on Jilly, the fey painter and armchair counselor finds her unflagging good cheer and resolve strained to new levels. Badly hurt - possibly paralyzed - in a hit-and-run accident, her studio and faerie paintings destroyed by an unknown vandal, Jilly must find a way to pull her life back together. All the friends in the world won't help her when her own subconscious refuses to let her heal.
But some memories she would rather not confront. Some scars run too deep. And Jilly, who has always wanted to experience the faerie realms personally, now finds escape from paralysis and a confining hospital bed by crossing into a dreamworld, a place of peacefulness where mysteries live. It would be so tempting for her just to close her eyes and stay there forever....
Raylene Carter, a "white trash" girl who was abused and unloved in her childhood and whose young adult life has been dominated by things going wrong, too, finds escape from her life in the dreamworld - not like Jilly, as a human observer, but in the projected form of a wolf.
Jilly and Raylene have issues between them which must be addressed and resolved. Rest assured that de Lint never takes the easy or tidy way out of things - his endings might not always be happy, in the traditional "ever after" sense, and they certainly remind the reader that things don't always end up the way we want them to. Along the way, prepare to be emotionally wrenched as you read about the tragedies - horrific abuses and betrayals, shattered trusts, lost loves, missed opportunities and raw feelings laid bare - which haunt the lives of de Lint's characters. At the same time, he provides ample evidence of true love and friendship, as well as the unyielding spirit that allows strong individuals to rise above their woes, living and always searching for the silver linings and hidden joys that make life worthwhile.
The Vancouver Sun:
It's rare today to find fiction as hopeful, as magical, as filled with the unbridled majesty of human potential as The Onion Girl. You've got to read it.
Green Man Review:
This isn't just his best work to date, it's his most satisfying, filled with tragedy and magic, reminding us that while we are what the world makes of us, we're also what we make of ourselves. This is de Lint at his finest, blending the real and magical seamlessly, so that it's impossible to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, and making it clear that the true magic always starts within us.
The Onion Girl is the patiently waited for new novel by award winning author Charles de Lint. Set in de Lint's fictitious city of Newford, it is a delight for long time fans to return to the streets, to peak into the lives of the wonderful and 'real' characters in this magical place. As well, it is a grand experience for those who have never read de Lint's work before—Newford will make you want to come back, again and again. This story is spun around one of de Lint's most popular characters, the wonderfully gifted artist Jilly Coppercorn.
Long have we heard the warning, "Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it." In this case, we should heed the warning well. "I'm the onion girl," Jilly Coppercorn says. "Pull back the layers of my life, and you won't find anything at the core. Just a broken child. A hollow girl." This is not a light and happy tale of faeries and numena (animal people), but a dark tale of pain and of the horrific things people do to those they are supposed to love. It is a story of survival, of rediscovering things forgotten and of finally discovering oneself. The Onion Girl is an apt name for this tale.
Jilly has, until now, been a carefree spirit, one who revels in making those around her happy; always a kind word and a smile for those she meets on her travels around Newford. She is the artist filled with a magic. She is the one who has captured the faces of the fey on her canvasses. We find that Jilly is also, as are we all, a product of her environment. She overcomes many obstacles in her early life, but she never really deals with any of the pain from those obstacles. She just pushes it all into the dark corners, deep within, and pushes on with her life. We watch as Jilly is forced to stop running from her past and deal with what is there in the dark corners. "But then I guess we all have a mess of one kind or another lying somewhere deep inside us. There is no such thing as a perfect life. The trick is to accept each other's weaknesses and lend our strengths when we can." This statement is very profound coming from one who has had her whole life shattered in one momentous blow, yet so very true. And in de Lint's Newford, Jilly is beloved by all—the human and the not-so-human. All of these special beings make appearances here to aid our heroin in her struggle.
de Lint takes us along on the journey as Jilly does her best to deal with the past she has tried so hard to put away. That past must be dealt with before she can begin to heal the new, almost fatal hurts she has suffered. Those past hurts could keep her from returning to her life, as she once knew it. Jilly deals with things in her own manner, both in the World As It Is, and in the Dreamtime. We see her struggle and, as a character we have come to know and love, we wish to help. However, we can only watch and hold our breath, and hope that she makes the right choices. Much as her friends in both worlds, we are helpless. This story is Jilly's personal battle against her past, against the past that has stepped forward to intrude upon her new life. de Lint shows us there is no more difficult battle than the ones that we fight within ourselves.
Will this 'fey' artist be strong enough to overcome her past? We can only hope so as we read the pages of this book. de Lint has outdone himself with this novel. It takes complete hold with the first sentence and does not let go until the last word. Even then, this story lingers. It is an incredible read, and one that I think all will enjoy.
De Lint's novels are driven not so much by destinations as by journeys, and The Onion Girl is no exception. Jilly Coppercorn, a figure familiar to readers of de Lint's other Newford stories, is an artist with paint in her hair and under her fingernails, always there for others, but possessing her own dark secrets. Now she must face both her present hospitalization after being hit by a car and the pain hidden in her past. She does this in the company of many familiar Newford faces, as well as some new folks in Newford and in manido-aki (the spirit world). What makes de Lint's particular brand of fantasy so catchy is his attention to the ordinary. Like great writers of magic realism, he writes about people in the world we know, encountering magic as a part of that world. Fairy tales come true, and their magic affects realistic characters full of particular lusts and fears.
When I first heard about Charles de Lint's The Onion Girl, I almost jumped out of my skin. I'd spent most of the summer getting into de Lint's mix of folklore and mythic elements and modern life, especially his Newford stories. Newford, for those unfamiliar, is a fictional city in North America (there is some debate as to whether it's in the United States or de Lint's native Canada), where many of his stories take place, including the short story collections Dreams Underfoot, The Ivory and the Horn, and Moonlight and Vines, and the novels Memory and Dream, Someplace to be Flying, and Forests of the Heart. The Newford stories all deal to some degree with finding magic in the modern world, and the characters have to deal with the consequences of finding out that there are more layers to the world than they'd previously known.
While The Onion Girl doesn't require your having read de Lint's previous work, he does make references to his previous works. These references add to the feeling, make the reader comfortable with, the self-contained world he describes in The Onion Girl. If you haven't read his previous volumes, you won't feel out of step or lacking. In all honesty, these references will make you want to "know" more, perhaps make you "hooked." The books are loosely connected, though, so if you're interested in reading the Newford novels in order of publication, start with 1994's Memory and Dream. For a good introduction to the themes that run throughout de Lint's work, try picking up Dreams Underfoot, the first of his short story collections. (While the novels are excellent, it's in the short stories that de Lint really shines.)
At the center of these stories, always, is the artist Jilly Coppercorn, a spritely figure, always with flecks of paint on her nails, her jeans, and in her hair, who seems to believe in everything, no matter how farfetched. While Jilly appears in at least half of the short stories, her part in the novels is usually smaller. However, with The Onion Girl, de Lint sets out to tell Jilly's story. Sporting more than a slight crush on Jilly, naturally I was excited to see a whole novel devoted to her character, as I can imagine most fans of de Lint's were.
Fans, get ready to have your hearts broken. It gets worse for Jilly. Much of her dark past was already laid out in the 1993 story "In the house of My Enemy," which is reprinted as part of The Onion Girl (mostly because, as de Lint says, he didn't have the heart to revisit the horrific abuse and other misfortunes visited on Jilly as a child and preteen). The novel begins in the aftermath of a car crash that has left her paralyzed; "the Broken Girl," as she calls herself. Without giving away too much, she is told that the healing powers of her friends who dwell in the spirit-world will be of no avail until she comes to terms with her past and its hurts. This, along with the reappearance of a figure from her past, and her newfound ability to dream herself into the spirit-world, take up most of the plot of the book.
However, despite the somewhat darker themes of The Onion Girl, the appeal of the book is much the same as with de Lint's previous work: the theme of magic existing side-by-side with the modern world. The theme of a hidden dimension to life, is what mythologist Joseph Campbell called the fundamental theme of mythology no wonder, then, that de Lint eschews the label "urban fantasy" for his own description: "mythic fiction." As Jilly tells a homeless girl she's taking care of, "'If there's no magic, there's no meaning.' Without magic or call it wonder, mystery, natural wisdom nothing has any depth. It's all just surface." Later, a spirit tells Jilly that "it is so easy for your people to forget that everything has a spirit That magic and mystery are a part of your lives, not something to store away in a child's bedroom, or to use as an escape from your lives."
This theme has been visited by de Lint time and time again, but the real treat here is seeing the continued development in the Newford novels of a structure to this other world. The stories lay out the hidden dimension to life. Trader dealt in part with the spirit-world, and used the character of Joseph Crazy Dog (called "Bones"), to a greater degree (Joseph is more of a force in The Onion Girl than ever before). Someplace to be Flying introduced the idea of "The People," animal-people who have been around since the creation of the world, and perhaps before: Raven, Jack Daw, the Crow Girls, Cody (Coyote), Margaret (Magpie), as well as families of dogs, foxes, and wolves. Last year's Forests of the Heart established more details about the spirit-world, also called Manido-Aki, and attempts to organize it. The Onion Girl takes place in large parts in the spirit-world (as did Forests of the Heart), and fleshes it out in greater detail.
Together, with all the gradual additions, de Lint is close to laying out what must be called a foundational myth for his world. When I first discovered de Lint's work, I took to it the way I haven't done with anything since I first read Neil Gaiman, and I think the comparisons between them aren't inappropriate. Except where Gaiman works in large-scale myth, creating a framework and then filling it in, de Lint mostly works with folkloristic elements: girls who can change into crows, a tree that is fed with tales, or an artist whose paintings can come to life - leaving a framework that, even with the emergent myth of "the People," is relatively wide open.
There are weak points, in The Onion Girl as with the original Newford short stories: the theme of child abuse is revisited too often, the plots seem to take a long time to get anywhere, and the characters do seem to fall into the categories of the Skeptic and the Believer. More to the point, the theme of a hidden dimension to the world, and of confronting the existence of magic, may grow tiresome, but that theme is why I read de Lint, (as well as Gaiman). Stone-cold rationalist as I seem to be, I don't want to live in a world without magic, without wonder. Like Jill Sobule says in a song, "I'd love to see a miracle once before I die." De Lint's stories make you believe in miracles, and The Onion Girl is no exception.
Jilly Coppercorn is The Onion Girl, the layers of whose life hide the core of an abused childhood and guilt for the little sister she left behind. Artist Jilly reminds me of a cross between Kipling's Kim, 'Little Friend of all the World' and Peter Pan. She has been present in most previous Newford tales, as a friend and helper of others. Now she needs help herself and a multitude of friends rally around her, for Jilly has been hit by a car and become the 'Broken Girl'. She is in a coma and awakes half paralysed with a long, hard road to recovery.
If you haven't spent time in Newford before, The Onion Girl is probably not the place to begin your journey as it assumes prior acquaintance with many different characters, but it is, in my opinion, the most powerful of the series. De Lint writes gritty urban fantasy, and his latest deals with some tough issues, of childhood sexual abuse, the damage that continues through life, and of recovery from severe trauma. But his world also has hope and magic running through it, captured in Jilly's paintings, that show glimpses of faerie 'in junkyards, or fluttering around a sleeping wino.'
Jilly, wanting to be anywhere but where she was in childhood, always believed in fairy tales. 'She would tap at the back of closets and always look very carefully down rabbit holes. She would rub every old lamp that she came across and wish on any and everything ...' But magic can't fix all problems; the 'three wishes and the genies in bottles, seven-league boots, invisible cloaks and all ... stay in the stories', and though Jilly's accident gives her access to the otherworld, she soon discovers that she must peel back her onion layers and deal with the past before she can heal her body's hurts in the present.
In parallel with Jilly's struggle to recover and to face her own history, the author shows us young Raylene growing up, being abused by an older brother, and taking a dark path in her escape, one that leads to increasing violence and a thirst for revenge. The stories eventually merge and come to resolution, after both protagonists venture into the dreamlands, and spend time at the Inn of the Star-Crossed. The author doesn't cop out with an easy ending but shows individuals who must work hard for their own redemption.
If you've been to Newford before, The Onion Girl is a must read in the series. If not, it's time you visited, but get to know some of the inhabitants in earlier tales like Dreams Underfoot, Moonlight and Vines, or Forests of the Heart, first. De Lint's writing is truly magical, and if it is indeed his voice speaking through Jilly at the end - 'I'm determined to show through my art that there are alternatives to the way the world is these days' - he's doing a fine job.
At the beginning of this novel Charles de Lint quotes from G.K. Chesterton: 'They (fairy tales) make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.' Put another way, fantasy does not so much offer us a way of escape from the real world as help us to see it in a new way. Once again, in this latest Newford novel, Charles de Lint has succeeded in doing just that.
Newford is an almost archetypal North American city and the setting of many of de Lint's stories. As a distillation of modern urban life Newford is utterly convincing. It is an exciting place with a strong artistic community and a vibrant night-life. But it can also be a harsh and dangerous place for those who find themselves on the margins of society. And the margins are precisely where most of the Newford stories are set. In Newford the margins may be dangerous but they can also be bridges between this world (the world as it is) and a magical place (variously known as the Otherworld, the Dreamlands and the Spiritworld).
Readers already familiar with Newford will be delighted to learn that the central character, the onion girl of the title, is none other than Jilly Coppercorn. Since her first appearance in the short story 'Uncle Dobbin's Parrot Fair', she has been a regular feature of the Newford stories. Jilly is one of a band of 'small, fierce women' at the heart of Newford's artistic community. For years she has longed to be able to visit the Otherworld in her dreams, like her friend Sophie. Untidy, dreamy and an enthusiastic believer in faery, Jilly has always been presented as the one who is there when someone is in need of help. Now it is her turn to need the support of her friends. The book begins with her being the victim of a hit-and-run which leaves her paralysed and unable to paint. It seems small compensation that as a result of the accident she can now enter the Otherworld whenever she falls asleep.
Shortly after Jilly's accident a newcomer arrives in Newford. Raylene Carter is almost a negative image of Jilly. She and Jilly share the experience of having been sexually abused as children. But there the resemblance ends. Jilly ran away from home and ended up on the streets of Newford. The story of how she was helped off the streets and into her career as a successful artist is told in 'In the House of My Enemy'—a short story originally published in 1993, which de Lint has inserted into this novel. Raylene learned to fight back and discovered that violence could help her achieve her goals. By the time she arrives in Newford she is a hustler and small-time crook. The idea of Raylene as the dark counterpart to Jilly extends into the Otherworld. Raylene, too, can cross over in her sleep. But, while in the Otherworld, she takes a form that allows her complete freedom to express her violence. It is a tribute to the strength of de Lint's characterization that Raylene comes across as genuinely sympathetic rather than evil or pitiful. For fans of Jilly that sympathy is likely to be tinged with unease as they gradually realize that Raylene is the sister she left behind when she ran away from home and that Raylene is in Newford to punish Jilly for abandoning her.
The viewpoint of Joe Crazy Dog provides a third vital narrative strand. Readers of other Newford novels will remember him particularly from Trader where he acts as the spirit guide for a man who finds himself trapped in someone else's body. Once more he is called upon to act as a guide. This time, Jilly's friends look to him to help her find her way back from the Otherworld. He is the natural choice for this because, although he appears human in this world, he is one of the People—shape-shifters who seem equally at home in both realms. Joe it is who makes Jilly realize that in order to deal with the effects of her accident she must confront the dark episodes in her past that she has so effectively suppressed. She must face her shadow, in the person of Raylene, if she is to achieve wholeness.
Spirit guides; confronting your shadow; seeking inner healing—this storyline could so easily have become a piece of New Age kitsch. We have de Lint's integrity as a storyteller to thank for the fact that it hasn't. He is too honest a writer to shrink from the cost to Jilly and Raylene. In the end, Jilly has to choose between the Otherworld she has desired for so long and the world as it is, where she is a cripple unable to earn a living. And, though she does not realize it, the possibility of Raylene's redemption also hangs upon that choice.
In addition to the three major viewpoint characters, de Lint has woven together narrative strands from a number of secondary viewpoints (mostly Jilly's friends). The result is a self-assured, intricate tapestry from which the reader gradually acquires a detailed understanding of Jilly and her personal history. This is not a fantasy novel for action fans, but anyone who appreciates vivid description and carefully crafted character development will find it a rewarding read.
Here's a few hard questions: If someone could take away the one thing that keeps you going, what would it be? What would it do to you if they did? And what's your deepest, darkest regret? Woo! Tackle those questions (I'll pass for now, thanks), and you'll be looking at yourself in that yucky way that wise people look at you. You know, like they know you better than they have any damn right. It's really uncomfortable. Well, this is Jilly Coppercorn's turn.
Welcome to the latest and long-anticipated novel The Onion Girl by Charles De Lint. Dubbed "a master of the modern urban folktale" by the Denver Post and a recent winner of the World Fantasy Award for the short story collection Moonlight and Vines (Tor), Charles De Lint has developed quite an impressive following among fans of Urban Fantasy for his evocative story lines and charming, detailed characters. The Onion Girl is no exception, and the magic runs rampant through every delicious chapter. Except this time, there's a dark side. And this time, it's all about Jilly.
Yes, fans of De Lint's work will be psyched to note that at long last we have a whole novel about Jilly Coppercorn, that pixie artist who darts in and out of a large portion of De Lint's work and seems to represent the heart of De Lint's imaginary city, Newford. Ubiquitous and cheerful, Jilly embodies the dreamy artist with one foot in the Otherworld. Whether they be fairies or ghosties or plain folks down on their luck, all Newford residents seem to love Jilly's infectious belief in the magical world. All, it seems, with the exception of one very angry soul who wishes her dead.
Straight away, we find Jilly in the hospital after a tragic hit and run. She's mostly paralyzed on her right side. Which means, horribly, that she's unable to paint, and may never do so again. For a woman who has pulled herself out of a poverty stricken and abusive childhood by means of her imagination and gift for art, this is a devastating blow. Depressed and nearly destroyed by her pain and mental anguish, Jilly finally gains access to her deepest desire, the Otherworld. But, as usual, there's a very heavy price. Immediately it becomes apparent that this will be a different kind of Jilly story. We will not be parading down cobbled old streets full of midnight cats and sweet fiddlers this time. Instead, we will finally begin to examine Jilly's innermost self - her fears, regrets, and desires. While long time readers will be initially distraught to find Jilly in such a bad state ("Hey, maybe I don't want to know so much about Jilly!! Leave her alone and I'll go on about my merry little deluded way!"), eventually one discovers that this is all tremendously necessary. Finally, Jilly becomes a whole person, both to herself and to the reader. Now her lessons seem less like fairy dust and pixie sticks, and more like the kinds of lessons we can relate to.
Again, fans will be delighted in more ways than one by The Onion Girl. It's a mature and intimate De Lint novel rife with the familiar characters many have come to love. However, this is the one area in which possible dangers erupt. Many recurrent characters appear in The Onion Girl. The danger being, what if a reader not already familiar with Newford wanders into this book? While De Lint does a masterful job recounting important facts about each character in relation to Jilly, I fear new readers will feel they are missing information. Merely by the nature of Jilly's central role in the Newford mythos, this book may be the only De Lint novel written more for fans than for first time readers. Then again, if there is one novel that will inspire first timers to go out and read more De Lint, if only to uncover the fantastic stories behind each character, this is the one.
Yeah, fairy stories ain't what they used to be. Nowadays, ya gotta slog through a lot of soul-searching to get to the old forests and the fox people and the raven boys. But, once you get there, it sure looks a lot less like make-believe, and a whole lot more like real life. And I think that's a really good thing. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go give myself that uncomfortable eyeball in the mirror and ask myself some hard questions. Well, 'cause I want to see the fox people too, ya know.
I don't know what makes me turn. Some sixth sense, prickling the hairs at the nape of my neck, I guess.
I don't know what made me pick this up at my last trip to the bookstore. Might've been the intriguing cover art of a barefoot young woman sitting in the crook of a tree; might've been the "Winner of the World Fantasy Award" notation; might very simply have been the title, The Onion Girl doesn't really sound like run of the mill fantasy to me. I'm still not sure what it was about this book that made me decide to take it home, as I'd never heard of the book or of author Charles de Lint, but I'm awfully, awfully glad I did.
I'm an onion girl…and what I'm most afraid of is that if you peel back enough layers, there won't be anything left of me at all. Everyone'll know who I really am. The Broken Girl. The Hollow Girl.
Jilly Coppercorn, a fairly well-known artist in the large, metropolitan city of Newford, wakes one day in a hospital for a reason she cannot quite put her finger on. After learning of the pedestrian versus car accident (she being the pedestrian, of course) that put her in the place, and facing the possibly permanent paralysis of one side (her drawing side, no less) Jilly takes solace in her visits to the Dreamlands. A magical place on the Other Side where she can be whole and hale, the Dreamlands provide a welcome distraction. Their attraction might, however, prove too distracting to Jilly, who must turn away from them and heal her older inner wounds she carries before she can heal the new external hurts that gave her access to the magical world.
By the time she reaches 15 years of age, Raylene Carter tires of being molested by her older brother and decides to let him in on the change. The next time he creeps into her room he's met with a switchblade instead of a whimper. It takes a little blood, but Del Carter learns the hard way he ain't gonna make no boy toy outta her no more. 'Course, this means Raylene and her best friend Pinky got to run away and start of their own version of the badger game (a con involving almost-prostitution and blackmail) in the town of Tyson afore they can put together the stake to get themselves outta that no account burg an into a real city like Newford or L.A. Foul-mouthed and from the wrong side of the tracks, Raylene accidentally discovers the Dreamlands and finds that running a killing wolf pack there as the alpha female ain't a bad way to pass the time. Not a bad way until, that is, she finds the woman she hates most in this world is also in the dreamlands…and Raylene don't share well at all.
As Jilly's and Raylene's stories unfold and intertwine, they cross between this world and the Other and discover, along with the magical world of faerie, that the past, no matter how much one wants to forget, will not be ignored. They'll both have to come to terms with what they've been before they can get on with the business of being what they want.
I've done drugs and I've seen faerie. They're not the same.
If Jilly is any indication, Charles de Lint is quite the romantic. He speaks of Beauty with a reverence that is rare these days, and almost always capitalizes the word, certainly whenever Jilly utters it. He finds the potential hidden in stray dogs and empty windows, introducing us to a world full of possibilities. Rather than traditional epic fantasy set in a slightly medieval, very Western-European style world, de Lint takes a present day, albeit fictional, North American city and adds a blend of Native American and Western- and Eastern-European myth to achieve a world that is as believable in its here-and-now as it is in its there-and-when.
Just as compelling as the landscapes he paints, the characters of de Lint's vivid imagination reach out and ensnare the reader. Whether good or bad, or some combination thereof, each of the people we meet intrigue and interest; whether we like them or not, we do want to get to know them better, find out what makes them tick. And tock. And de Lint achieves all of this, Beauty, possibility, intrigue, interest, with language that is sometimes evocative, sometimes spare, sometimes poetic, sometimes plain, but always somehow just what we needed to hear.
The book jacket notes that de Lint has already written several novels and stories dealing with his fictional city of Newford, and apparently Jilly shows up as a peripheral character in many of them but only became a focal character in this novel. Normally, I'd advise staying away from "incidental" novels dealing with supporting characters in established series because those novels usually require the reader to know a fair amount about the backstory. While knowing the backstories for this novel's supporting characters might well prove advantageous, I found Jilly and Raylene irresistible enough on their own. Of course I wished I knew more about the other friends and foes, but only to the point of wanting to read more of de Lint's work rather than to the point of being distracted by the holes in my knowledge.
Everything I know or can feel or can think about narrows into this singular focus on what's happened to her.
Narrative in the novel tends to jump around. Some sections are told in first person from Jilly or Raylene's point of view, others in third person from either theirs or one of their friend's perspectives. Once or twice, we even get a first-hand account from someone other than Jilly or Raylene (it took me a while to figure out exactly who was doing the talking then), and a few "newspaper clippings" show up now and again, as well. De Lint does a respectable job of keeping everyone's voice and view straight, but those who prefer a linear, singular narrative style will likely find this book something of a chore.
A few characters whom we meet pop in for brief moments and are quickly discarded. If this were truly a standalone novel I'd question Mr. De Lint's intent for these people and his ability to build plausible, or even reasonable, story elements without resorting to cheap extras. However, this being part of a body of work about a world he's built, I understand the author using characters out of previous works for cameos in the current one. In-jokes and walk-on roles are not only the norm in sci-fi series, longtime fans often expect them, and these weren't terribly distracting for all their sometimes superfluous feel.
Look hard enough, and everything has a story. Everybody is important.
The jacket bills the author as "one of Canada's best-kept literary secrets," but I hope that description will be short-lived. With The Onion Girl Charles de Lint combines a contemporary urban setting with lands out of myth and lore to paint a stunningly evocative portrait of the choices we make and how those choices influence the people we become. I'm quite enchanted by the book and will be seeking out more of de Lint's work. If you're a fantasy fan who likes the change of pace urban fantasy provides, but doesn't believe in sacrificing nuance or character for bits of contemporary realism, I think you'll be enchanted, too.
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..."
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!