Map of Blue Book Balloon

23 May 2017

Review - Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

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Wicked Wonders
Ellen Klages
Tachyon, 23 May 2017
PB, e 288pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for letting me have an advance e copy via NetGalley.

I hadn't read any of Klages' work until getting my hands on Passing Strange last year (silly David) so was very pleased to be able to catch up (not least because in two of the stories we meet characters from that book). It is great that the book lived up to expectations in every way.

These are serious, funny, tough, tender and varied stories. Above all, they have heart and offer hope. In many, women or - especially - girls - struggle with constraints, actual or impending loss or change, and things aren't made easier by the strictures of society: a woman accidentally falling pregnant is placed in an impossible position by her partner. A girl is misunderstood by her mother, forced into a mould that doesn't fit her. Another girl is about to lose everything. In all these stories there is, though, hope: the comfort of a good friend, a chink of light or a realisation of power and potential.

Friendship is at the centre of many of the stories: new friendships, old friendships renewed after decades, unlikely friendships suddenly tested, as in the longest and most intense of the stories, Woodsmoke, an account of two girls spending a summer at camp. Apart from the dawning relationship between then - they don't start off friends, Peete is pretty resentful to begin with - this story is shot through with a kind of childhood luminosity. This is NOT a sentimental story - it has great clarity and honesty, but it shows the glory of enjoying life, of enjoying the moment and - I hope - promises a future of support and solidarity.

The experiences here are common ones: clearing a house after the death of a parent (touched on a couple of times, including in a piece of non-fiction, The Scary Ham), the coming of a new sibling, two women meeting for coffee and cake, a mother putting her child down for the night. But the everyday is made strange - passing strange, perhaps: those two women (in Mrs Zeno's Paradox) meet across time and space in a variety of cafes as they halve their cake and halve it again, the child is being nursed on Mars, the schoolgirl settling down to play boardgames on a Friday night at her boarding school ends up an Alice in Wonderland style adventure - and in San Franscisco, a sorceress can fold space through origami.

Not all the stories are actually fantasy or science fiction: Woodsmoke, for example, is entirely naturalistic (although infused with a sense of the magical) and Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl while fantastical in setting (a thief, an inn, a quest for treasure) actually contains nothing not rooted in real science (Household Management is similar, though rooted in a different kind of fiction). Many of course are, and in some it's a twist of magic that provides that little glimmer of hope from the future.

As well as the stories themselves, the book contains a shrewd (I think!) introduction form Karen Joy Fowler and a piece by Klages herself describing her approach to writing and the genesis of some of the stories. Both provide useful insights but in the end the stories stand alone in their wit, courage, fellowship and above all, humanity.

This is a collection of stories that I felt better for having read. Strongly recommended.

For more information about the book see here.

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