Offence, Sympathy and Ordinariness


Shannon Hale posts on books that cause offence (and hopes hers will) and asks what offends readers: The Great Galley Giveaway

I’m offended by books that insult my intelligence: poorly written, poorly edited, poorly characterised, characters that are of course untrustworthy/malevolent/hypocritical/silly/fabulous because they are Jewish/Muslim/Christian/female/gay, etc. There are other books I prefer not to read because of their content, but I (almost always) put them down out of choice, not offence.


Jennifer Kesler on The Hathor Legacy has gone back for a second look at Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: Neverwhere: review, take two. I’m really glad she did this because there was some controversy and discussion about her first review and it was interesting to see the discussion there (Neil joined in) and see her new opinions on the book and how he treats the characters. What I found particularly interesting was that although she felt he treated the female characters with respect, she didn’t like them as much as the male characters, many of whom were either funny or sympathetic to other characters. That sort of sympathy/empathy is often held up as being a feature of female characters, and Jennifer replied that that could be seen as a role reversal in itself.


Again on the Hathor Legacy Jennifer writes on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and “[normalizing] the idea of a girl going on a quest by simply showing one without making an issue of her gender, without making her an exception to the rule that girls can’t quest”.

I do like it when people just do things without making issues out of them (that’s why my favourite movie is my favourite – ah, Chard!), but I was more struck by Jennifer’s comment that “Coraline is not special. She’s an ordinary kid with ordinary parents living in an ordinary home.” I’ve been thinking about how few heros (or heroines) seem to be around these days who don’t have magical powers, and this made me remember how much Coraline reminds me of Alice: unremarkable, unmagical, practical and sensible. And I do like heroines – and characters in general – like that. Alice in Wonderland’s slightly supercilious common sense, the remarkable scrapes E. Nesbit’s children get into (whether assisted by magic, as in The Enchanted Castle or Five Children and It, or entirely through their own efforts, as in The Story of the Treasure Seekers), the awful ordinariness of Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Clarence Scrubb and Jill Pole.

So many characters are extraordinary (often secretly so): secretly brilliant, magical, gifted, princesses, Destined, beautiful, inspired… I enjoy stories about people whose unique qualities eventually become recognised. But I also adore stories about utterly mundane people who manage to get by regardless: the dull, respectable heros, the plain practical heroines, the brave but not brilliant lassies, the smart but silly children, the lazy Jacks of the tales, all the people who are envious and proud and boring and irritating and who have adventures anyway, and change, and change the world.

Diana Wynne Jones, of course, manages to have it both ways: quite horribly human characters whose undiscovered abilities don’t necessarily make them or their extensive and awful families any better. And then, of course, she makes you love them anyway (sort of the opposite of Joss Whedon, who makes you love characters and then does awful things to them).

September Short Book Reviews

History of the Kings of England (Historia Regum Britanniae)- Geoffrey of Monmouth. A 12th-century imaginative, odd, half-familiar, largely invented, entertaining account of Britain from its settlement by Brutus and other Trojans, through a variety of kings – including Arthur and his relatives – and queens and mighty men (some of whom liked to pick up giants, run to the coast and throw them into the sea), adventures and invasions and attacks on Rome, with a detour into the prophecies of Merlin. Such a very different world and view not just of history but of the writing of it.

My Family and other Animals – Gerald Durrell. In 1935, ten-year-old Gerald Durrell and his eccentric family (their relaxed, harried mother, the sensitive writer Larry, gun-mad Leslie and vague, romantic Margo) moved to Corfu, where for five years Gerald grew up in a very haphazard fashion among the people and animals and olive groves. Often I read a book and don’t want it to end, but also really want to know what happens at the end, so rush to get there. I did not want to find out what happened at the end of this book – I just wanted it to keep on doing what it was doing, indefinitely. Such a laid back, (sometimes hysterically) funny, gentle memoir, full of bizarre and lovely stories and descriptions that are always so accurate I could *see* the sea wrinkling around the coastline, or the haze of bees under the olive trees, or the erratic voyages of the family. The book is available in Popular Penguins so you should be able to pick it up for under $10 (Australian), and the 2005 BBC movie (I haven’t seen the miniseries) – though not on the same scale – is very true to the feeling of the book and stars the wonderful Imelda Staunton (as in Dolores Umbridge), among others.

Rapunzel’s Revenge – Hale, Hale and Hale. A short graphic novel retelling of Rapunzel in a fantasy Wild West. Sweet (at times a little too sweet) and fun, but with an edge of tales wilder than fairy tales: folk tales and tall tales and legends of the West. There was more multi-ethnicity in it than I’m used to in fairytales, which was a pleasant surprise (a bit like watching British shows after American ones: not perfect but better) and although I found the art more cartoony than my tastes usually run to, it definitely grew on me. There is an interview with Shannon Hale (on whom I already looked with favour as she had written a novel of my favourite fairy tale, The Goose Girl) by Karen Healey on Girls Read Comics which is the reason I tracked the book down, and I am glad I did.

The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer. I like Georgette Heyer regencies: so irrepressible and fun and even if they end in a romance, not romances at all but funny novels full of wit and misunderstandings and vengeance and mistaken identities and carriage races and duels and highwaymen. This was an excellent example, with the poor orphaned cousin come to stay with family in London turning out to be the tremendously confident, independent, capable and irrepressible Sophy, who sets about rearranging everyone’s lives to her satisfaction. It has a wonderful ending, too – a proper, Diana Wynne Jones style, everyone-in-the-cast-descending-at-once, maelstrom, chaotic ending. With escaping ducklings. And a whippet.