Friday, June 13, 2008

The Onion Girl by Charles de Lint

In novel after novel, and story after story, Charles de Lint has brought an entire imaginary North American city to vivid life. Newford: where magic lights dark streets; where myths walk clothed in modern shapes; where a broad cast of extraordinary and affecting people work to keep the whole world turning.

At the center of all the entwined lives in Newford stands a young artist named Jilly Coppercorn, with her tangled hair, her paint-splattered jeans, a smile perpetually on her lips, Jilly, whose paintings capture the hidden beings that dwell in the city's shadows. Now, at last, de Lint tells Jilly's own story...for behind the painter's fey charm lies a dark secret and a past she's labored to forget. And that past is coming to claim her now.

"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." She's very, very good at running. But life has just forced Jilly to stop.

There's a fair chance that if you read the first paragraph of this review and then move on, you are going to think that I didn't enjoy this book at all but I really did! I am however starting with a mini-rant about the Newford books! How can there not be a recommended reading order for these books. It was obvious in the story that there were people who were friends with Jilly whose stories had already been told. If there is one thing I cannot stand then it is reading a series out of order...and yes I am a bit anal about it! So the fact that there isn't a beginning, a middle and an end (even if it hasn't yet been written) just really does my head in! I am pretty sure I am not alone in needing to read series in I? Anyway...moving on.

As I have only previously read one Charles de Lint book in my pre blogging days (The Little Country), and one short story in the Excalibur anthology it is fair to say that my exposure to the work of this author is limited. He is someone whose books I see around the place, and think, yes I really should read some more of his books but it just hasn't really happened yet. What prompted me to finally pick up another de Lint book? It was chosen as a book club read at my online reading group. I ended up reading it a bit late for the discussion, but I am glad that I picked it up even though I didn't get it read on time.

In this book, we are (re)introduced to Jilly Coppercorn. She is at the centre of extensive group of friends who live in Newford and in many ways is the glue that holds that group together. She is an artist who paints, amongst other things, the other world or the dreamlands, and yet she has never been able to get to that other world herself like many of her friends can.

One night, Jilly is hit by a car and is left in a coma. When she awakes she is paralysed down one side, her painting side, and is distraught. The one good thing is that now she can go to the other world as often as she wants just by going to sleep for in the other world she is not the broken girl, and yet, she still is emotionally. Jilly has worked hard to build up her life in Newford, and become a different person from the young girl of her past, cutting all ties to her family and friends and to the events that shaped her.

Even when she travels in the other world though, she is made aware of her need to heal emotionally, to become whole. Her friends are worried that she may well succumb to the lure of the dreamlands where she can still climb trees and run. Her friends are also worried about not only the hit and run that put Jilly in hospital, but also an unexplained break in at her apartment where many of Jilly's dreamland paintings were destroyed, and then some really strange sitings of Jilly. Can all these events be linked?

At the same time as we are reading Jilly's story, we are also meeting another character - a very emotionally disturbed young woman by the name of Raylene. We learn of her past, and the decisions that she has made. It is clear very early on that there is a connection between these two characters, but de Lint does a great job of drawing out the exposure of that link.

In itself, this book has a powerful message to tell, or at least it did for me. Both Jilly and Raylene came from a desperately bad childhood situation and both were heading down a similar path, and yet, through the power of making better decisions, and accepting help and friendship, ended up in very different places, mentally, physically and socially. There were times that I really disliked Raylene as a character, and yet de Lint managed to give her story enough balance so that there were other times when my heart was breaking for a young girl who just never seemed to catch a break.

Another aspect of Jilly's storyline that I found interesting was the fact that despite the way that she had managed to become a very upbeat and positive person, there was still definitely a journey to be undertaken to enable her to be able to have a relationship with a significant other. The emotional journey for her was as important, if not more important, than her physical healing, and in many ways those two aspects were co dependant.

Along the journey that this story takes us on we meet many fantastical creatures - people who appear normal in the Newford world and yet are half dog, half man in the dreamlands, characters who need people to believe in them in order to be real, or else they will just fade away, fae, unicorns. A really interesting mix of creatures and characters.

Given the types of issues our characters go through in this book (child abuse, prostitution, drugs, crime, death) it would not have been surprising if it was a depressing book, but it really wasn't. There was definitely a hopefulness and a positive energy that was present when the cover was closed for the last time.

I will be reading more of de Lint's Newford series, just as soon as I can figure out what order I want to read them in!

As well as being a book club book, it was also one of the books that I nominated to read as part of Carl's Once Upon a Time II challenge.

Have you reviewed this book? If yes, please leave a comment with a link to your review and I will link to your blog.

Other Blogger's Thoughts:

Things Mean a Lot

The Written World
Rhinoa's Ramblings


  1. I'm a bit anal about reading things in order too, so I completely understand you. You're right, one would expect a book about these themes to be depressing... the way Charles de Lint managed to make it so hopeful is quite remarkable.

  2. I know what you mean about reading in order, too - there's nothing worse than feeling like you're missing out on previous events and characters' relationships. I was lucky with the Newford books that I've been reading them mostly from the beginning, as they've been published, so they've been in the right order. The above list is great, though - and I'll venture to guess that at some point you'll go back and reread The Onion Girl in the context of the other books and enjoy it even more!

  3. So can anyone make a suggestion about which book to read first or does it matter. I like to read books in order if possible but I can adjust. I've been trying to get a copy of this one for a while now. It sounds really good.

  4. Framed, I am planning to go back and start at Dreams Underfoot, which is a short story collection as I understand it.

  5. Dreams Underfoort is a great collection I preferred Waifs and Strays though.

    I must get my hands on a copy of The Onion Girl soon!

  6. I reviewed it here too. I loved this book although I am usually very strict on reading a series in order and skipped straight to this one! I aim to read as many of his books as I can get my hands on eventually!