Peter’s sister Tara disappeared twenty years ago, at which time he and his parents severed all ties with her boyfriend – who was also Peter’s best mate. I mean they understandbly suspected this chap of doing away with her, because naturally you always suspect the husband/boyfriend first. Anyway Tara shows up looking not a day over sixteen, spouting a ridiculous story about being abducted by faeries. Peter takes her to a shrink, and–this is the interesting part–we get a few chapters from the shrink’s “notes,” basically taking a psychoanalytic approach to Tara’s story: This here means she’s projecting her sexual fantasies onto this other character, this here means she’s repressing.
As readers of this genre we never doubt that Tara’s telling the truth, of course. Exactly what “this genre” is is harder to say, but it’s as old as dirt and a working definition might look something like “stories of fantastic things happening to mundane people.” One important thread in the novel is storytelling itself, the question of who does it and to what end it’s deployed. When Richie, Tara’s teenage boyfriend, is hauled into the police station his instinct is to cooperate; he’s got nothing to hide, after all. It quickly becomes evident that whatever Richie’s other virtues, he’s not a very bright bloke. He’s puzzled that his interrogators seem profoundly disappointed in his answers; at one point the officer is practically salivating at Richie’s admission of assaulting her next to a boulder in the woods when in reality he’s just admitting to having sex with her there. When Richie’s lawyer steps outside for a bathroom break, the remaining interrogators pull the good cop/bad cop routine on him and proceed to beat him to a pulp: “It ain’t me who is the cunt, Richie. See, what I am is the storyteller. I know how all the stories work. ’Cos I’ve heard ’em many times over. You get so you know which ones to believe.” Richie, you see, is unaware that other people have constructed some compelling narratives of how these things happen, and he’s walked right into one. Now he has to play the role expected of him.
This is a weird book. It starts from Peter’s third-person limited point of view, and then we get Tara’s first-person recollections of her time with the faeries, interspersed with Richie’s third-person limited POV from twenty years ago when she first disappeared. And the shrink’s psychoanalysis gets a few chapters, of course. In the end it’s got less to say about faeries than about class differences, and about how vulnerable women are. One of the places where it really shines is in the minor character of Peter’s thirteen-year-old son Jack, who accidentally kills his elderly neighbor’s cat. Then he gets roped into helping her look for her missing cat, printing up flyers and so forth, and eventually a mixture of guilt and genuine concern prompts him to hatch a crazy scheme to find a similar-looking cat, slap the old cat’s collar on her, present this creature to the old lady, and bask in her gratitude. The connection to the novel’s larger themes is fairly obvious; for although Tara is not an imposter (they got X-rays of her teeth to make sure), she is also not a replacement for or continuation of the old Tara who disappeared 20 years ago. The fact that the elderly neighbor with the cat was also taken by faeries many years ago is a fitting twist. That kind of experience changes you, whether you’re away for 20 years or six months (which was the subjective amount of time that passed for Tara).
I’m less happy with the way that Tara’s relationships with men are portrayed. Peter, her big brother, is overbearing and thinks he knows what’s good for her better than she does. He thinks she’s straight-up lying about where she’s been for 20 years and he keeps setting verbal traps for her, trying to catch her out in lies. While some of this is excusable on the grounds of this-must-be-tough-for-him-too, it’s harder to excuse the behavior of the two men Tara gets involved with in Fairyland, who are both OBSESSED with her to an unhealthy degree. One time they fought a duel to the death over her, and Tara freaked out because the “bad” one killed the “nice” one, except it turns out nobody actually dies in duels to the death, their bodies are burned on pyres and they’re reincarnated, healthy as a horse! Fine. But then the “nice” elf turns out to be not-so-nice, and he’s angry that Tara won’t have sex with him and angry that she won’t stay, and although he delivers on his promise to return her to her own world he also follows here there and stalks her day and night. In his spare time he causes a cancerous tumor to grow in Richie’s brain because he’s jealous that Tara likes Richie better than him.
Don’t even get me started on Richie. Lots of boys fall for their best mate’s sister, and I certainly don’t think Harry Potter, for instance, is at all objectionable for doing so, but this is how Richie describes it: “One day she was a skinny kid and the next day there was this glow about her … I watches her blossom every day. No one knew. I don’t think she knew. I never let her see me watching.” That’s not romantic, it’s creepy. Is the skinny-tomboy-to-beautiful-butterfly metamorphosis supposed to be original? So over it. Richie also tends to cast Tara in Manic Pixie Dream Girl terms that I don’t agree with, because Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not the sum of who she is. She’s got much more agency than that; she doesn’t just exist to inspire Richie to write songs about her (he’s a guitarist).
In conclusion I’m kind of torn about this book. On the one hand I did enjoy it. In inhaled the last 300 pages in one sitting, which means I must have found something compelling about it. On the other hand I feel like it’s doing a much better job playing with tropes and lampshading them than telling its own story. If I wasn’t so attracted to books that deal with just this topic–the liminal space between “realistic” and “fantastic” narratives–I doubt I’d have enjoyed it half as much. I render this verdict with the caveat that Jack and the old lady with the cat are both awesome, and the book is worth reading for their delightful interaction alone.