Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Someplace else

Last week I read The Beginning Place, the first novel by Ursula Le Guin that I've read. It's not long. It's a fantasy book that takes place partly in an all-too realistic suburb of an unnamed city. I think it's been listed in some places as YA fantasy, although conservative school districts and cautious parents might have a problem with it.

The story in a nutshell is that Hugh Rodgers is a twentyish guy whose life is going nowhere and who lives with his subtly mentally ill mother.  He finds a gate on the edge of town that leads to another place, one where time doesn't pass the way it does here.  Less than happy to find him there is Irene Pannis, because the strange land and its people are her thing.  Her living arrangement in the real world isn't ideal either. 

This isn't a perfect book, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.  First, one flaw.  There's a sex scene in the book that may well be necessary in terms of motivating what comes after.  Unfortunately when you look at what's come before, it seems pretty left-field.  Maybe that's the downside of the book being short.

One thing that's interesting is that Hugh and Irena's lives are dissatisfying in contrasting ways, in a "Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice" kind of way.  Hugh's world is all stifling order, living with a mother who demands that he be home at night, but who is never happy to see him when he's there.  Irena fled the home of her overwhelmed mother and abusive stepfather young, and now has to tolerate living with a squabbling couple.  (Roommate breakups, gotta love 'em.)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is Le Guin's unromantic depiction of the Evening Land.  In a lot of ways it's nothing special.  The static nature of time in this place also means there are no stars, no moon or sun, which sounds to me like it would get maddening after a while.  The nobles of the land seem to like the protagonists, but they have a backstabbing side.  From what I gather of Game of Thrones, they'd be minor cannon fodder on the show.

And that captures an odd truth.  Fantasy has sent homely youths to bright and magical places like Wonderland and Narnia and Oz.  The Evening Land isn't so colorful.  It's attraction lies in being elsewhere.  And yes, for bored and lonely people just out of their teens, that could be enough.


susan said...

Although I have read a couple of Ursula Le Guin's books (Lathe of Heaven and Left Hand of Darkness come to mind), I never really got into the body of her work. She is a very thoughtful writer and this book sounds very interesting. The premise that two damaged young people can meet and heal one another's psychological wounds is a very good one.

Ben said...

I had just read some of her short stories before this, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" being the one that really stands out for me. The characters are very well drawn here. Also Hugh's mother, while not remotely likeable, has a story going on in the background that could justify its own spinoff novel.

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