Light (and not so light) Reading

This summer I am dedicating myself to my New Year’s Resolutions. Unlike regular world resolutions, which all involve doing boring things like getting fit and procrastinating less, I have followed EB’s lead on grad student resolutions. Her resolution last year, this year and forever more is “drink more champagne.” Mine include the slightly tragic “have hobbies” (grad school has now officially sucked all the life out of me) and “engage in leisure reading.” And now that I’m keeping up on the first of my resolutions and writing fiction again, I can count reading YA and children’s literature as both “research” and “keeping up on my resolutions like the virtuous young woman that I am.” I’m also categorizing watching the truly hilarious “Chloe King with Nine Lives” under the general heading of research.

So far I’ve joined the Hunger Games party, fashionably late as always, and have a longer post on that planned for later in the week. My newest library acquisition arrived on Friday and I flew through it over the weekend. It’s a 2005 children’s fantasy/historical fiction novel called I, Coriander by Sally Gardner. Oh, how well you know me, Amazon recommendations algorithm! Set in London during Cromwell’s Republic, it tells the story of Coriander, the daughter of a silk merchant father and a herbalist mother with a mysterious past. After her mother’s death, and her father’s hasty remarriage to a cruel Puritan widow, Coriander begins to uncover her mother’s otherworldly heritage and is drawn into a dangerous struggle both within Puritan London and in the fairy realm.

Reading the blurb, I was keen to see how the historical background would be handled by Gardner. Spanning from the Civil War to the Restoration, we see the events of the second half of the seventeenth century through the eyes of Coriander. There is a realistic naivety to the way that these tumultuous years register with Coriander, most keenly felt in the direct impact that they have on her day to day life. A sense of nebulous fear picked up from her parents as the Puritans begin to target Royalists and those they suspect of witchcraft and papery. The bewilderment at her step-mother’s iconoclastic rampage through the family home, tearing down pictures and mirrors and forcing Puritan dress and a Christian name on her stepdaughter. The latter in particular resonates with the kind of historical work that I do in my non-fantasy fiction devouring life. Its impressive how Gardner communicates the impact of iconoclasm and the policing not just of public church spaces, but also of private spaces and the interior person, so effectively to a young audience.

The larger political issues are allegorized through the intertwined narratives of the wicked Puritan stepmother in London and the equally dastardly Queen Rosamund in the fairy realm. Both figures are represented as usurpers, equivalent to Lord Cromwell within their own domains. The gender dynamics set up in the narrative are sometimes unsettling. Throughout the novel Gardner provides the reader with a wide range of interesting, strong female characters, both good and evil. The comparison between Coriander’s mother, Eleanor, who is good and kind although she comes from the fairy realm and practices herb craft, and Maud, the cruel stepmother who sets herself up as a pious Puritan, provides a deft commentary on religious hypocrisy and intolerance. But there is something problematic about the turn that she takes with Maud when she writes her as not simply abusive, but also a bigamist and a whore. This decision seems to reassert the very gender narratives that Gardner is attempting to subvert in the figures of Eleanor and Coriander. Rather than rejecting entirely turning the epithets used by the Puritans against Royalists, Roman Catholics and witches, she affirms them by turning them back on a Puritan woman. Still, a good read and an interesting example of the thematization of religion in writing for young readers. And you can’t go past magical silver boots and handsome men who turn into foxes.

Next on the list of summer reads is Anathem by Neal Stephenson. So far my impressions are “I was just thinking I need a new doorstop” and “insanely brilliant, as usual (with equal emphasis on the insane and the brilliant)” LOVE Neal Stephenson!

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~ by medievalness on July 26, 2011.

2 Responses to “Light (and not so light) Reading”

  1. I disapprove of the name Coriander. That is all.

  2. On account of its tweeness, or on account of the fact that you think coriander/cilantro is the most overused item in contemporary cooking?

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