Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Book Review: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces by C.S. LewisTitle: Till We Have Faces:  A Myth Retold
Author: C.S. Lewis
Publisher: N/A (pirated copy)
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5

Despite his importance to the fantasy genre, I’ve never been a big reader of C.S. Lewis. I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe just a single time as a child, and the story was so un-engaging that I promptly forgot what happened. Subsequent attempts to read the book led to me stalling right around the time Lucy encountered Mr. Tumnus.

Add to that The Problem of Susan, and it’s easy to see why I’ve been wary of his books.

However, I love stories that reinterpret classic myths, and this particular interpretation was analyzed wonderfully by Karen Burnham and Karen Lord, so Till We Have Faces leapt onto my TBR pile.

And boy, am I glad that it did: I am not ashamed to call this book a masterpiece.

Orual, the veiled queen of Glome, is old, alone, and approaching death. One thing she is not, though, is pious. She has seen the gods for the charlatans they are, and wants the whole world to know what she knows: that they are cruel, and delight in taking only the most precious of things from humanity, leaving nothing in return. Such a thing was her sister, Psyche. Years after Psyche’s ruinous disappearance, Orual wants to tell her side of the story and hold the gods accountable. And so she writes:

Orual is the eldest daughter of the king of Glome, a small kingdom near Greece that worships the dark goddess Ungit and her son the Brute. Orual is so ugly that it is immediately understood by her lout of a father that the only value that she’ll bring to the kingdom is to be educated as a man would – her younger sisters Redival and Psyche are far better marriage material. As a child, Orual is happy because despite her ugliness, she has people who love her: the Fox, a Greek slave who is her tutor and her father’s most valued advisor, and Psyche, who is gifted with both great physical and spiritual beauty.

However, when drought and plague strike the kingdom and rumours spread that Psyche is being worshipped for her beauty, it is taken as blasphemy of the highest form. Despite the philosophical interpretations of the Fox (who says that Ungit is really a debased version of she whom the Greeks call Aphrodite), the high priest of Ungit decrees that she must be sacrificed on a mountainside to the Brute.

Orual learns of this and takes ill. Upon her recovery, she resolves to find Psyche’s remains to give her a proper burial – Antigone was able to do at least that much, she reasons. However, upon her journey to the sacrifice site, she finds out that her sister is alive and well. Orual is shocked and convinced her sister has gone insane – what Orual sees as a sprig of wild berries Psyche sees as a feast in a palace. And how can Psyche, who is so beautiful, love something as ugly as the Brute? Has Psyche lost all sense of sisterly duty?

Who, really, is in the right? And why should the gods, who are powerful, make such playthings of humans, who are weak? Orual resolves to test her sister’s newfound happiness, with disastrous results for both of their souls.

For a long time, Lewis was dissatisfied with the classical story of Psyche and Cupid. Nothing about it – Psyche’s sisters’ jealousy, Psyche’s own gullibility and disobedience towards her husband – made any sort of sense to him. Till We Have Faces was his attempt to create fully-fleshed, believable characters whose actions were consonant with those of the original myth.

Lewis succeeds in doing this by making Orual a real piece of work. She may be physically ugly, but she makes up for it with a keen intellect and a good sword hand. However, she’s also desperately lonely and needy, unwilling to be honest with anyone about her true motivations, least of all herself. Orual’s insistence that Psyche look upon her own husband’s face is not only a test of loyalty, but also a desperate gambit on Orual’s part to make her sister realize the truth about her life on the mountain.

I really don’t know how well I can describe the book after this point. Both sisters pay a terrible price for their actions. Psyche disappears. Orual becomes queen and rules successfully for decades. But deep inside she’s a thornbush of guilt. It is only at the end of her life that she’s willing to delve into the reasons why she originally forced Psyche’s hand.

In fact, it’s easy to see that the series of visions she has (which are chock-full of Jungian imagery) before her death leads to a conversion experience. C.S. Lewis was known for writing extensively on Christian themes, so it’s interesting to note that he manages to lend a Christian veneer to Orual’s experience, despite the fact that she worships the gods of ancient Greece.

Considering conversations in the last year about whether female characters should be likeable, Till We Have Faces is a timely book to read. In many ways Orual is not likeable – she’s needy and manipulative, and convinced that the sacrifices she forces other characters to make are made for the right reasons, rather than for her own happiness. But within the confines of the story, the choices do make sense, especially when viewed through the funhouse mirror that is Orual’s mind.

What I mean is that more people should be reading this book. After hearing Burnham and Lord talk about it, I was desperate to read it myself. But you know what? It appears to be out of print. I couldn’t buy it through my Kobo. I couldn’t even find a copy of it through the Toronto Public Library, which quite an is impressive feat. Scanning Abebooks resulted in finding copies that were a bit out of my price range. So when my friend sent me a pirated PDF version of this book, I threw up my hands and said “good enough.”

Let me repeat that: I have a huge library of eBooks. Hundreds of books and magazines that were purchased legally, or gotten for free through otherwise legitimate means. I am generally against eBook piracy. Yet I was willing to read a pirated version of this book, because it was otherwise so hard for me to find.

Lewis’s Space Trilogy just got a handsome new reissue from HarperCollins for its 75th anniversary. Of course, I wish that Till We Have Faces was still in print, but the 60th anniversary of its original publication is only a few years away. Will anyone else be rooting for a new print edition to celebrate?

Up next: Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill

Book Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Title: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Author: Alison Bechdel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

I bought my copy of Fun Home at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, a riotous celebration of the comic arts that happens at the Toronto Reference Library every May. This was around the same time that the book’s sequel, Are You My Mother? was published.

About the book: Alison Bechdel’s father Bruce was a high school English teacher, a funeral home operator, and a man who worked tirelessly to restore his Victorian-era home to its original glory. He was a husband and father of three children. On the outside, the Bechdels were a functional nuclear family. However, soon after Bechdel came out to her parents, she learned her father was also gay and that he had sexual relationships with his students.

Months after her announcement, her mother filed for divorce – and two weeks after that, her father got run over by a truck.

Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Bechdel thinks it was the latter, and in Fun Home, she analyzes her memories, books, and family letters in an attempt to understand who Bruce was and why he chose a life that dissatisfied him so deeply.

What I liked: Bechdel’s analysis of her and her father’s lives, and her ability to wed it to distinct visuals, was inventive and involving. I remember one page in particular where she mapped out the places where her father was born, lived, and died, and circumscribed the area within one tidy circle to reveal that all of these important things happened within one mile’s distance of each other. The narrative loops back and forth upon itself, and parcels out new information at a measured pace, showing the readers new facets of the same story as it progresses. I appreciated Bechdel’s depth of focus in both her writing and her visuals – nearly everything is in its right place. I admire how much effort went into writing and drawing something so emotionally painful, and how much more effort went into making it all look seamless.

What I disliked: I don’t know if this trait was also visible in her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” but Fun Home‘s authorial voice was depressingly distant. The language Bechdel used to describe her family, her thoughts, and her experiences was detached and clinical. I understand that this is supposed to reflect her own experience of growing up within such a singular household – indeed, Bechdel herself is quite aware of how distant she sounds – but it still left me uneasy. On top of that, all of the interwoven references to the canon of Western literature were so dense that without the author’s explanations on how these stories fit into her own life I would have been lost.

The verdict: Fun Home genuinely challenged me in a way unlike nearly any other book I’ve read so far in 2012. Part of me was grateful that my family was never that repressed and dysfunctional. Part of me couldn’t fathom how another person could feel so detached from their father’s death. But another part of me was acutely aware of how little I knew and understood about classical literature. I was intimidated when I read it, because it felt chock full of references both visual and textual that were extremely cultured and beyond my comprehension. This was the first book I read this year where I put it down feeling that I needed to read it over again to truly understand it.

Up next: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Correction, July 8th: I originally stated in my review that Alison Bechdel learned her dad was gay only after he died. However, she learned this soon after she came out to her parents, months before his death. The “About the book” section has been updated accordingly.

Book Review: The Bone Spindle by Anne Sheldon

Title: The Bone Spindle
Author: Anne Sheldon
Publisher: Aqueduct Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 3 out of 5

I first heard about The Bone Spindle through this review from Strange Horizons, which I also talked about here. At the time I read the review, I was writing a short story about the Arachne myth, and thought that a book that examined the art of weaving throughout mythology would be intriguing. I’ve put the Arachne story aside for now – unsurprisingly, writing a story from the perspective of a spider isn’t a smart idea if you’re arachnophobic. Also, I added this book to the Goodreads database.

About the book: The Bone Spindle is a collection of short stories and poetry that examines and comments upon the role that weaving has played throughout stories from various cultures, from the spindle-wielding fairy of Sleeping Beauty to the crafty metaphorical yarns of Anansi, the trickster-spider.

What I liked: I appreciated most the stories that played with the myths and fairy tales I knew the best – Arachne, Sleeping Beauty, the silent princess who had to sew shirts for her twelve brothers who had transformed into birds.

What I disliked: I’m not a huge fan of poetry, so some of the impact this book had on the reviewer at Strange Horizons is lost on me. In addition, despite the presence of several poems and at least one decently-sized short story, the book was over far too quickly. Both my Kobo and my copy of Adobe Digital Editions listed this book’s page-count as just over 50 pages. The longest piece in the collection, “Dream from My Mother’s House,” was vivid, but a bit too wistful – like Ray Bradbury at his most nostalgic.

The verdict: This was the book that introduced me to Aqueduct Press, which specializes in publishing feminist science fiction. Considering that I majored in Women’s Studies in university, finding out about this publisher was a delight. As a result, I think I ended up appreciating the book more for what it represented – an offering by a publishing house whose philosophy I am sympathetic towards – than what it actually was – a short collection of poetry.

Up next: Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan