July 8, 2013 by Heidi
Salute Your Shorts is a regular feature here at Bunbury in the Stacks highlighting and reviewing short stories and novellas.
Title: Yellowcake [Goodreads]
Author: Margo Lanagan [Website|Twitter]
Standing: All stories in the collection stand alone.
Genre: Young Adult, Speculative Fiction
Published: May 14th, 2013 by Knopf BFYR (published in Australia in 2011)
Format: Hardcover; 240 pages
Yellowcake brings together ten short stories from the extraordinarily talented Margo Lanagan–each of them fiercely original and quietly heartbreaking.
The stories range from fantasy and fairy tale to horror and stark reality, and yet what pervades is the sense of humanity. The people of Lanagan’s worlds face trials, temptations, and degradations. They swoon and suffer and even kill for love. In a dangerous world, they seek the solace and strength that comes from family and belonging.
These are stories to be savored slowly and pondered deeply because they cut to the very heart of who we are.
As a short story reader, it was a bit of a surprise that I didn’t pick up a Margo Lanagan short until after I’d polished off her two novels, though now that I have I fear the flood gates have opened. As with her larger works, I must emphatically state that Lanagan’s work is not for every reader, but there is just something about her twisted world view that keeps drawing me in. Her mind works in short stories. With Tender Morsels I became overwhelmed with the story and emotions, unable to disconnect and observe passively–it was too much. With Brides of Rollrock Island, the story was fractured into smaller narrative pieces, almost making it in itself a short story collection, allbeit one that coagulated into a cohesive narrative. I adored it. Here, with Yellowcake, I fell in love in ten pages, was horrified in 30, and felt no great loss when 20 were completely lost on me.
Yellowcake holds ten short stories, all snippets of vastly different lives and times. Many were downtrodden, some were spiteful, while a very few showed glimmers of true joy. Here were some of my favorites:
Shroud of Gold–This was an enchanting and different take on Rapunzel (though to be fair, I haven’t read many retellings), starting after the witch has cut off all of Rapunzel’s hair and focusing on the prince’s rescue of the woman he loves. To me, this was the one truly light story of the lot, working with the help of Rapunzel’s strands in a way that brought magic to life, the lightness coming only because the darkness has already passed. Unlike some of her other tales where it becomes almost laborious to figure out the precise setting and premise, Shroud of Gold was easily recognizable to those familiar with this tale, and I greatly enjoyed it.
A Fine Magic–This, this is my favorite Lanagan. The Lanagan that is simultaneously breathtaking and horrible. The story of a fascinator who attempts to entrance one of two eligible sisters to marry him, and seeks to punish them when they refuse. In a language that sounds almost like a script laying out blocking and dialog, Lanagan easily immerses us in a world that is beautiful and frighteningly bitter. Hands-down, my favorite of the collection.
Into the Clouds on High–It’s starting to feel like the closest to “happy” Margo Lanagan can come is bittersweet, and a large part of me is okay with that. This would be that one very bittersweet story in the collection. A boy, his father, and baby sister struggle together to keep their otherworldly mother grounded and with them with a higher power calls her to office. It is both charming and heart wrenching, a reminder that there are different kinds of love, and that unfortunately they can sometimes be quantified and ranked.
Catastrophic Disruption of the Head–This is the longest story in the collection, but that also makes it one of the most gripping and unforgettable. It is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Soldier and the Tin Box, and true to that man’s bleak outlook on human nature. Indeed, I think Lanagan and Andersen are kindred spirits, both reveling in sea foam and cold winter nights that can freeze a soul. Catastrophic Disruption of the Head tells the story of a soldier who gains control over three powerful supernatural dogs that he uses to fulfill every whim. Here we see the opening chasm that is desire, and how easily a mind can turn from contented to wanting more more more until there is nothing more to take. It is both disturbing and ugly, but the sentiment was so poignant that it is a story I will not soon forget. Warning here though: this story contains brutal rape and violence.
It is very confusing when you can do anything. You settle for following the urge that is strongest, and call up food, perhaps. Then this woman smiles at you, so you do what a man must do, then another man insults you, so you pursue his humiliation. While you wait for a grander plan to emerge in your head, a thousand small choices make up your life, none of them honorable.
Ferryman–Psycopomps seem to be cropping up a lot lately in my life, and as odd as that sounds, I’m more than okay with it. Ferryman is a tale told to us through the eyes of the daughter of the ferryman–the man who ferries souls over the river Styx from our world into the next, first feeding them morsels to forget about their lives and all those they loved or lost. This was the most classic YA of all the stories, one I could easily see as a full novel plot, but was quite happy to take in in this short piece. It captures so elegantly that moment when we realize we must pick up and bear the burdens of our parents, and how impossible and unavoidable this seems in times of deepest grief.
The other stories in the collection didn’t grab me in the same manner as these five, and I’ll admit–I’m not sure I understood a couple of them at all. Still. I will certainly be back for more, and seeking out Lanagan’s other color-named collections over time. She’s not a sure thing for me, and yet, she’s so utterly fascinating and gripping that I can’t not read her work.
Roundup: Keertana reviewed one of my favorite novellas–Magic Dreams by Ilona Andrews–over at Ivy Book Bindings.
This review was written as part of the Aussie Women Writers Challenge
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Category Review, Salute Your Shorts, Young Adult | Tags: Aussie reads, diviners, fairy tale, fantasy, Historical Fiction, Knopf Books for Young Readers, rape, Rapunzel, retelling, review, Salute Your Shorts, speculative fiction, The Soldier and the Tin Box, young adult