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Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 by Isuna Hasekura, trans. Paul Starr

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The life of a traveling merchant is a lonely one, a fact with which Kraft Lawrence is well acquainted. Wandering from town to town with just his horse, cart, and whatever wares have come his way, the peddler has pretty well settled into his routine-that is, until the night Lawrence finds a wolf goddess asleep in his cart. Taking the form of a fetching girl with wolf ears and a tail, Holo has wearied of tending to harvests in the countryside and strikes up a bargain with the merchant to lend him the cunning of ‘Holo the Wisewolf’ to increase his profits in exchange for taking her along on his travels. What kind of businessman could turn down such an offer? Lawrence soon learns, though, that having an ancient goddess as a traveling companion can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Will this wolf girl turn out to be too wild to tame?
~~~~~
As with Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime, this was one of Jeannette Ng’s light novel recommendations; a high mediaeval fantasy about economics? Right up my street, surely?

Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 starts off promisingly enough, with the tribulations of Kraft Lawrence, a travelling merchant, without fixed abode, longing for the possibility of belonging somewhere. We meet him plying his tricks to get information, and see the way that knowledge is power, before we ever really get into the meat of the story; Lawrence is our viewpoint character, and Hasekura introduces him to us early, in all his flawed and stereotypical, simplistic ‘glory’. Holo is similarly unsubtle a character; Spice & Wolf treats her at times as a completely naive person with no knowledge of society, despite clear interactions with it, and at others as deeply knowledgeable about modern (that is, mediaeval) systems of economics.

This uneven characterisation for both is frustrating, and not helped by the constant undercurrent of romantic tension that Hasekura tries to create; Spice & Wolf wants to make Holo and Lawrence seem an obvious couple, but despite the text itself repeatedly suggesting mutual feelings, there doesn’t seem to be any real chemistry between them, only a kind of dull, muted thing that could at a glance be seen as such. Hasekura’s writing of people all tends towards that, in this volume; no one really has a personality, they are pieces on the board to be moved around to fit the plot.

The setting does little to allay this problem. Spice & Wolf is set in a stereotypical high-mediaeval pseudo-Mitteleuropa, dominated by a monotheistic Church intent on stamping out paganism and killing demons and the possessed. It’s a collection of microstates and trading companies and free cities, whose interdependence and interconnections are assumed but not clear; we seem to jump from mediaeval feudalism in one moment to a guild structure in the next, from kingdoms and dukedoms to city-states. Hasekura’s care and attention to aspects of the worldbuilding is patchy, at best; indeed, it often feels like the world of Spice & Wolf exists to allow Hasekura to explain economic principles, rather than for those economic principles to actually make sense.

The plot of Spice & Wolf is a quiet, small thing, at first; what starts as a minor deal to get in on the ground in a bit of currency speculation quickly spirals out of control into a matter of rival merchant consortia kidnapping and counter-kidnapping. Hasekura is assured in his action sequences, with fast-paced movement and some really heart-pounding moments, but these are few and far between. What advances the plot far more are economic discussions or negotiations between merchants. While Hasekura makes some of these negotiations fascinating through showing as much what’s going on behind the spoken words as what’s actually said, on the whole, they can drag a bit. This is especially true when Spice & Wolf devolves into Lawrence simply explaining to Holo exactly what currency speculation is, or how a commodity currency works, or what devaluation of a currency means; they feel rather stilted and intrusive on the plot.

In the end, Spice & Wolf Vol. 1 is an interesting attempt at writing an economics-based epic fantasy, but Hasekura can’t quite make it work.

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Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime by Mizuku Nomura, trans. Karen McGillicuddy

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High school student Konoha Inoue is a gifted writer who’s lost his passion for his craft. When he meets beautiful upperclassman Tohko Amano, though, he finds someone with a greater hunger for literature than anyone he’s ever met… literally!

Amano is a book-scarfing goblin who satisfies her cravings by munching on the printed works of history’s greatest authors. However, nothing is as delicious as the handwritten stories she bullies Konoha into writing for her.

When a desperate classmate approaches the “literature club” to draft love letters on her behalf, the very thought of it sets Tohko’s mouth watering! But as Konoha will discover, the greatest love stories are often the most tragic…
~~~~~
Jeannette Ng, of last week’s Under the Pendulum Sun review, some little while ago had a thread of light novel recommendations. I’ve been curious about light novels for a while now, and so took these up…

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is an odd little book, which starts off as one thing before slowly morphing into quite a different book. It seems, at first glance, to be quite a frothy little novel, a story about high school romance, subterfuge, and misplaced or unrequited love; Nomura leans heavily into the frilly side of the novel as she kicks proceedings off. It is only as the book continues and developes that a darker theme emerges; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime isn’t about a love story, it’s an investigation into a death, an investigation Konoha and Tohko have been tricked into by seemingly-chirpy Chia Takeda, a first year.

The slide from one plotline into the other is strangely smooth; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime builds up the romantic plotline as a standard schoolgirl romance, unrequited and of an older student, before Konoha’s attempts to learn more about this older student turn up the fact that he doesn’t actually exist. Nomura doesn’t lean heavily on supernatural elements, although Konoha assumes they are in play; instead, this is essentially, but for the book-eating girl herself, a dark piece of mimetic fiction, and the plot reflects that, with its plotting that has more than a hint of the Shakespearean to its resolution.

Shakespeare is not the only literary touchstone for Nomura in Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime. Not only does Tohko reference the different way different authors taste repeatedly, and show an incredible engagement in literary criticism and a deep engagement with various texts, but the whole book is built in conversation with Osamu Dazai. Indeed, many of the decisions characters make are heavily influenced by, and structured around, Dazai’s final work, No Longer Human; all the characters have read it, and there is explicit engagement with it in the context of Dazai’s wider ouevre, making literary criticism a key plot point for this novel.

Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime is also a fascinating book for its characterisation; everyone has a full and interesting personality, and the degree to which things like depression and angst are treated sympathetically is incredibly powerful. Indeed, Nomura’s discussion of different presentations of difference and depression, and the coping and deflection methods teenagers may develop to mask it, is moving in its accuracy; characters aren’t flattened by their mental health difficulties, only altered by them, and we have to see people in new lights as we learn more about them. This is a rare nuanced approach, and the way it manifests in the central cast is really well written.

The problem comes in the way Nomura treats the physicality of the female characters; Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime seems almost to become a different novel temporarily at times, as the bodies of the girls in the cast are discussed in pornographic, prurient, male-gaze ways that really intrude on the way the rest of the book is written. By turns deeply thoughtful and whimsically light, Nomura’s occasional succumbing to the pressures of certain conventions of how one describes a girl’s body really jar when they appear.

In the end, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime isn’t high art, but it is deeply thought and felt art; it’s breezy, and eases you into its darkness, but Nomura really does carry that darkness well. A fascinating read.

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A Small Charred Face by Kazuki Sakuraba, trans. Jocelyne Allen

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What are the Bamboo?
They are from China.
They look just like us.
They live by night.
They drink human lifeblood but otherwise keep their distance.
And every century, they grow white blooming flowers.

A boy name Kyo is saved from the precipice of death by Bamboo, a vampire born of the tall grasses. They start an enjoyable yet strange shared life together, Kyo and the gentle Bamboo. But for Bamboo, communication with a human being is the greatest sin.
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Vampires are a mainstay of horror, and have been since before John Polidori wrote The Vampyre in 1819; they’ve also long been a subject for reclamation in fiction, whether in that model or from other cultures. A Small Charred Face caught my eye as another entry in that long tradition of humanising monsters… Kazuki Sakuraba’s book is somewhere between a single novel and three separate, linked novellas collected into one volume; the marketing suggests it be read as one, and so I will review it as such.

A Small Charred Face is fundamentally a wistful, sad set of stories; it is about fading, aging, changing, and memory. The first two parts of the book are very intimate in scale, following single individuals; first, a human child taken in by a pair of Bamboo, who raise him until he becomes an adult; and second, a Bamboo who had befriended him briefly in his childhood, who later took in the child he took in shortly before his own death. They focus in very deeply and intently on the emotional relationships, and the idea of growing up; in the first part, of how a child does not understand the importance of growing up, and in the second, the problem of not growing up while those around one do.

A Small Charred Face is beautiful in both these parts; the characters are so well realised and so deeply, painfully human, in all their flaws, that their fights, their struggles, and their loves are all intensely touching. Watching Kyo age, and realise what he has forgotten, is a profoundly painful experience; while watching Mariko remain a perpetual child, while those around her age and die and maybe even forget her fundamental traumas, is similarly brutal. Sakuraba’s grasp of voice is vital here; the shifting first person narration is not only incredibly individual, but also ages with the characters, and shows their emotional development, in a very real way. Sakuraba’s writing also draws the reader through with great pacing and style, demanding one reads on to find out what happens to these characters, making it a fast book to read, and one hard to put down.

Sakuraba also shows romantic love beautifully; Kyo is raised by Mustah and Yoji, a pair of male Bamboo, and their mutual love and adoration is never shown as a sexual matter, but is shown as utterly pervading everything about them. A Small Charred Face, for half its length, shows some truly beautiful romantic writing; and the confusion of feelings of Kyo towards his adoptive parents is painful and beautiful to behold, as is the way his feelings about his past change and develop.

The third story in A Small Charred Face is rather less strong; it explains how Bamboo society in Japan came to be, in exile from China. Focused on a narrator who is a smart, dedicated, driven member of the royalty of the takezoku (the name the Bamboo called themselves in China), it looks at persecution and at discrimination. Sakuraba takes on a lot of themes across the sixty pages of this story, and tries to grapple with them all; while the despair of a brilliant woman forced into hiding her intelligence because of the needs of society are incredibly moving, other emotional elements don’t ring true, in part because the story is just too rushed, and relies too much on the way it plays on references to events in the future of the story that happened in previous episodes of the book.

In the end, A Small Charred Face reminded me very strongly of Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling; both intensely emotional and beautiful books using vampires to talk about humanity, Sakuraba’s is much more wistfully sad, but, for the most part, just as brilliant.

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You Should Have Left. by Daniel Kehlmann, trans Ross Benjamin

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On retreat in the wintry Alps with his family, a writer is optimistic about completing the sequel to his breakthrough film. Nothing to disturb him except the wind whispering around their glassy house. The perfect place to focus.

Intruding on that peace of mind, the demands of his four-year-old daughter splinter open long-simmering arguments with his wife. I love her, he writes in the notebook intended for his script. Why do we fight all the time?

Guilt and expectation strain at his concentration, and strain, too, at the walls of the house. They warp under his watch; at night, looking through the window, he sees impossible reflections on the snow outside.

Then the words start to appear in his notebook; the words he didn’t write.

Familiar and forbidding by turns, this is an electrifying experiment in form by one of Europe’s boldest writers. The ordinary struggles of a marriage transform, in Kehlmann’s hands, into a twisted fable that stays darkly in the mind.
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Literary turns at horror are an interesting beast; some people, like Michelle Paver, get it absolutely right, whereas others end up writing subpar horror and subpar literature at the same time. So with the imprimatur of authors like Jonathan Franzen behind it, and a brilliantly simple cover, I was curious to see what the German novella You Should Have Left. would be like…

At the start of the book, Kahlmann proceeds as if this were just ordinary literary fiction; a blocked screenwriter and his former actress wife take their four year old daughter to a lodge in the mountains to retreat from the distractions of life while he writes a new screenplay. The book itself is the notes, a mixture of diary and screenplay, the nameless husband is making. The domestic tensions are all there, from the disinterest of the wife and the little squabbles between the spouses to the frustration of trying to care for a child; You Should Have Left starts in a very mundane way, leavened more than anything else by the snatches of screenplay we see, which look like a fascinating what-next romcom sequel about growing up and domestic dissatisfaction.

However, Kahlmann slowly builds up the weirder elements; from the odd warnings villagers the nameless narrator encounters, to the dreamlike nightmares and visions of the narrator, You Should Have Left leaves the realm of the mimetic and enters a slightly sidewards realm, with the cliches of horror the signposts to what is to come. What raises the book above those cliches at this stage is the way the writing breaks up, at moments; things like “Get away” are interspersed in ordinary narrative, and the writer of the book keeps breaking off the narrative only to return and explain the odd event that caused him to stop writing mid-sentence. It’s very artistically done, and does create a kind of mingling of reality and unreality; none of the events at this stage are necessarily external to the narrator’s own mind, after all.

When it ramps up the horror is when Kahlmann is perhaps weakest, although also most innovative. You Should Have Left bends and plays with reality, and the way the characters are trapped in the rented lodge is dark and powerful; however, the constant seeking for a cosmic metaphor, or one based in quantum physics, for the entrapment feels forced and unnatural from the narrator. Furthermore, Kahlmann can’t quite seem to decide if the ennui of the fear or actual terror at the impossibilities going on are the emotion he wants to convey and make readers feel; at times it seems almost like he thinks one leads to the other, and thus neither really lands.

You Should Have Left. is an interesting little book, and a good approach to melding literary and horror fictions, but in the end, Kahlmann is far better at the literary than the horror, and leans too much on the latter for the former to really shine.

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The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, trans Sian Reynolds

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Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is not like other policemen. His methods appear unorthodox in the extreme: he doesn’t search for clues; he ignores obvious suspects and arrests people with cast-iron alibis; he appears permanently distracted. In spite of all this his colleagues are forced to admit that he is a born cop.

When strange blue chalk circles start appearing overnight on the pavements of Paris, only Adamsberg takes them – and the increasingly bizarre objects found within them – seriously. And when the body of a woman with her throat savagely cut is found in one, only Adamsberg realises that other murders will soon follow.
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Crime novels usually work to a formula of death; and detectives, increasingly, fall into one of a few archetypes – the Sherlock Holmes derived one, say, or the Rebus derived one. The Chalk Circle Man intriguingly suggests, in its blurb, that it falls into neither of these formulae; so, to test that, I picked a copy up…

The Chalk Circle Man is an odd novel; it starts off in a very low key way, with portraits of its different viewpoint characters, each of whom doesn’t quite fit into society or their role in it in the expected way. Commissionaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is the principal investigator of the novel, but he’s a rather unusual character: not the driven, hard-bitten officer you expect, but quite a vague, unfocused, gently meandering person. He tends to be late, and do unexpected things, and Vargas doesn’t try to make that seem like part of a process, but instead makes it clear how little process he has – but how much his subconscious works away anyway; he’s a rather beautiful riposte to the focused detectives who know exactly what they’re doing of much contemporary fiction. The Chalk Circle Man gives us a contrast to this approach to policework; Danglard, alcoholic single parent to five children who look after him as he looks after them, is a wonderfully sympathetically written character, incredibly sharp and intelligent but at the same time far more wary of supposition in a way that stops him making intuitive leaps.

Outside the police force, the principal character is Mathilde Forestier, piscine scientist. She has a different odd take on the world, and doesn’t feel at peace with it or a part of it; her way of dealing with humanity is to stand outside it and observe, and thus she is drawn into a complex tangled web of people who all connect, in various strange ways, to the chalk circle man himself. Charles Reyer, her boarder who flirts with her, is one of the most interesting portrayals by a sighted person of a blind character I’ve ever read; The Chalk Circle Man isn’t sympathetic to him, because he doesn’t need or want sympathy, but expresses his anger at the rest of the world brilliantly, and the way he relates to people through the prism of his loss of sight as an adult.

This is a very tightly focused novel, in terms of characters; The Chalk Circle Man takes place in Paris, but apart from the four viewpoint characters, there are a handful of police, a couple of witnesses, and a few other incidental characters who make up the entire cast. It’s a very dense book in the way characters cross over with each other, and the secondary cast are rounded out with little details; Vargas never lets the reader forget that it isn’t the person the reader knows, only the person filtered through the perspective of whoever we’re following in close third at that moment.

A crime novel has to be more than just a cast. The Chalk Circle Man is perhaps at its best before any murders have happened; the weirdness of the chalk circles make an intriguing and strange plot, as their nonsensical nature and the apparently unfounded interest Adamsberg takes in them – and thus requires his team to take in them – create only more confusion. The lack of a focal point for every character at once, and the different reactions of the characters to events whose interpretation can vary so widely, are brilliant. When the murders start, Vargas loses much of the almost listless focuslessness of the early novel, a kind of drift through events that was beautiful to read and experience; now, things are more focused, and the characters stop being able to simply interact, everything happening through the specific focus of the murders.

The resolution of the plot, the identity of the murderer, is one of the least convincing parts of the book. While Vargas laid down her clues throughout The Chalk Circle Man, and puts them together in a very formulaic way, it is a deeply unsatisfying conclusion, taking the strangeness and existential weirdness and lack of focus of the rest of the novel and suddenly grounding it. Everything suddenly shifts to be much more quotidian, and much less interesting; the meandering, while all making sense in a different light, becomes all much more pointed and purposeful in retrospect.

The Chalk Circle Man is beautiful, and strange; I just wish Vargas hadn’t wanted to write something with a resolution like any other crime novel, because the gentleness and almost-ennui of the start were what really made this stand head and shoulders above most of the genre.

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Hadriana In All My Dreams by René Depestre, trans. Kaiama L. Glover

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Hadriana in All My Dreams, winner of the prestigious Prix Renaudot, takes place primarily during Carnival in 1938 in the Haitian village of Jacmel. A beautiful young French woman, Hadriana, is about to marry a Haitian boy from a prominent family. But on the morning of the wedding, Hadriana drinks a mysterious potion and collapses at the altar. Transformed into a zombie, her wedding becomes her funeral. She is buried by the town, revived by an evil sorcerer, then disappears into popular legend.

Set against a backdrop of magic and eroticism, and recounted with delirious humor, the novel raises universal questions about race and sexuality. The reader comes away enchanted by the marvelous reality of Haiti’s Vodou culture and convinced of Depestre’s lusty claim that all beings—even the undead ones—have a right to happiness and true love.
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I learned about Hadriana In All My Dreams from the wonderful Bogi Takács; eir monthly Diverse Book Highlights on eir blog and Patreon are incredibly useful, and e brings to my attention all kinds of books I wouldn’t otherwise find out about – including, much earlier this year, this particular Haitian text, translated into English almost thirty years after its original French publication.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is a novel in three parts, and each part has a different narratorial voice and approach, but they combine to a whole. The first part is the story, told by Patrick Altamont from his perspective as a child, of Hadriana’s wedding day and funeral. It has a childlike innocence to it, although there is still an eroticism and sexuality shot through the celebrations; but its the eroticism of a person who hasn’t had sex, who idealises it without really understanding it. Depestre’s use of stories in this section is especially fascinating; as well as telling a chronological story, there are nested stories told by other characters to Patrick and to each other, which explain in mythological terms the events being witnessed or that contextualise things in historical terms. The fact that the stories have a different narrative voice to Patrick’s in this first section is powerful, and really shows them as recounted from the voices of others.

The second, brief section of Hadriana In All My Dreams is of an older Patrick, looking back on the suppressed memory of Hadriana’s death and apparent zombification; this is the most varied section in terms of style. Depestre includes an academic argument, albeit with vulgar language, a newspaper report in the style of a travel puff piece, and an imagined interview with a journalist, as well as more traditional narrative forms; the mingling of these registers serves as a fantastic bridge away from the simple narrative of the first half, centring external perceptions of what happened to Hadriana, even while trying to fit them into theory. This is also the part which is most referential; authorities from Levi-Strauss to Fanon and de Beauvoir are quoted, although there is also a sardonic undercutting of the theoretical, as Depestre’s narrator wonders where the place of an individual is in the midst of theoretical discourse.

The final section is where we see a real shift in Hadriana In All My Dreams, from Patrick’s narrative to Hadriana’s own. Depestre moves us from an external experience of zombification, and of the funereal rites, to an internal one; from a participant and celebrant to an unparticipating focus. This subjective shift is achieved with fantastic style, and comes with a slightly more free-ranging narrative; built into this section are dreams and recollections, telling stories within stories and contradicting the stories others are telling about Hadriana. There is also an interesting shift of sexuality; whereas Patrick’s sexuality in the first two sections is essentially adolescent, Hadriana’s is much more adult, although largely unexpressed apart from gropings and one particular encounter with another woman.

The way Depestre, and in her translation Kaiama L. Glover, use language is incredibly effective. Each section has a slightly different dialect and voice, and they’re consistent with their sections, calling to mind a slightly different image of the narrator; and Hadriana In All My Dreams flows incredibly well, with an attention to important details that really vividly bring Jacmel to life and the characters of the book to a loud reality. The one place where Glover, perhaps reflecting Depestre, hits some strange snags is in the approach to genitalia; this feels clunky in its figurativeness, and the language used trips the mind up rather than flowing as part of the text, in a strange way.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is an interesting novel, and unusually resonant for a zombie novel. Zombies are, of course, famously versatile metaphors, whether for consumerism or faceless foreign immigrants one is allowed to kill; here, though, zombification isn’t a metaphor, but a literal truth, around which other things are thrown into focus. Depestre doesn’t write about zombies with horror but rather with a kind of wistfulness for the impact of the zombification; Jacmel is changed utterly by Hadriana’s story, as social divisions over religion, race, and culture are thrown into stark contrast, and that is where the interest of the narrative lies.

Hadriana In All My Dreams is a beautiful, elegaic novel full of life; a zombie novel, but not like any other zombie novel I’ve read. It’s good to see Depestre’s brilliant book has finally made it into English, and I hope it’ll lead to more translations to come.

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Datura (Or A Delusion We All See) by Leena Krohn, trans. Anna Volmari & J. Robert Tupasela

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Our narrator works as an editor and writer for a magazine specialising in bringing oddities to light. Her mysterious publisher sends her exploring through a city that becomes by degrees ever stranger. From a sunrise of automated cars working in silent precision to a possible vampire, she discovers that people are both odder and more ordinary than they might seem. Especially if you’re earing datura seeds. Especially when the legendary Voynich Manuscript is involved.
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Leena Krohn is a writer the VanderMeers, through their small Cheeky Frawg publishing imprint, seem to be working hard to bring into more prominence among Anglophone readers of the Weird; they brought out Datura in 2013, and have since released a Complete Fiction volume. I decided to start with the slimmer option…

Datura is a very strange book, although for readers familiar with publications like Fortean Times, it is perhaps a little less strange that for those less familiar; after all, the fictional New Anomalist magazine of the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to the fabled Fortean Times and its quest to catalogue and publicise the weirder reaches of humanity. What makes Krohn’s novel slightly weirder, though, is that it is largely a collection of meta-articles; pieces about the writing of pieces for the New Anomalist, so we don’t learn much about the subjects themselves so much as how our narrator felt about them, an interesting twist.

That leads to a slightly disjointed feel about the book, though. Datura very obviously has something of a through-line, of the disintegration of reality around the narrator and the way her reality has separated out from that of the rest of us, and a lack of clarity as to where those divides are. However, the way that throughline is constructed is in a series of snapshots; there’s little linking each of the short episodes, although some things do carry through and a couple of characters appear multiple times, but on the whole there’s no sense of chronology to the episodes and the book as a whole.

Oddly, that doesn’t detract from the strangeness of the whole experience. Krohn presents each of these weird encounters, real or delusional, without judgement, and without enough framework around them to really separate out which is which; Datura is, in that sense, a fascinating exercise in breaking down the barriers of the real. That Krohn also mixes real fringe groups, such as Otherkin and kinksters, with wilder fringe science ideas that also have a hold, and with actual delusions such as slipping into other realities, and never makes it clear which are which necessarily, really adds to the slightly unreal and disjointed feel of the book.

Most of the episodes are hung onto a single character with whom our nameless narrator is interacting, and one of the greatest strengths of Datura is the brief thumbnail sketches which come out of these encounters. Every character pops off the page in a believable and real manner, with a whole interior life implied by their brief appearances; interactions with the narrator imply a lot about their life beyond their interactions with representatives of the New Anomalist, and the way the world receives them and their ideas. Indeed, having someone so determinedly not fringe as the narrator of Datura really throws the ideas of the other characters into highlight, and works to make the strange things that happen to her even stranger by her mundane, albeit confused, reactions.

In the end, Datura is a brilliant book, although I remain a bit on the fence about the level of disjointedness of it; Leena Krohn really has created a marvellous work of the Weird here.

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