Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan
Margo Lanagan's new collection of stories, Yellowcake, comes out on the heels of last year's The Brides of Rollrock Island, which I read hungrily in only two sittings, but kept hold of long enough to get me placed on my local library's list of miscreants. Lanagan, an Australian author whose prolific work has only been available to U.S. readers since 2006, has been a familial love for me: she was recommended to me by two different cousins, who urged me to read Rollrock Island (an exploration of the selkie legend originally published in Australia as Sea Hearts) and her earlier "Snow-White and Rose-Red" retelling, Tender Morsels. Her stories feature family strongly -- even if family is something the protagonist only remembers. Her tales are of stone seaside hearths and the ghouls that live close by, of blood-tied women who complete their circles with sentient bears, and of awed children who turn to flailing parents and grandparents when the sky turns the wrong color. Although her main focus in Yellowcake is magic, the supernatural, and the uber-natural, Lanagan writes of family and community exceedingly well. No crisis is withstood alone in her books: they affect couples, generations, entire towns. Even the psychopathic villain of "Catastrophic Disruption of the Head," a violent fairy tale retelling, has a family he returns to for homemade bread, small talk, and a bit of undeserved redemption. An interview for Clarkesworld Magazine asked Lanagan what she most loved about the world. Her answer? "That I'm not here by myself." It's a blessing she endows upon her characters as well, as they navigate catastrophes great and small.
One of the most satisfying characteristics of the stories in Yellowcake is that these characters do not only experience events as a community, but that quite often, they will experience sensation as a community as well. In the first story, "The Point of Roses," a boy named Jo with "psychic powers" evokes pure feeling from ordinary objects, feelings that can be felt by every human being for miles. When presented with a rose, Jo creates a cloying euphoria, drenched in "rosiness" that is described as a "sweet-scented shock... a velvety punch." When presented with a self-cleaning ashtray, every person for miles around is slammed to the ground by a deluge of ash and fear, a Pompeian nightmare that disappears after a few minutes but which leaves emotional scars. It's synesthesia made communal, in perhaps one of the best extended metaphors for writing itself that I've ever come across. Jo, a kind of storyteller, magnifies the essence of each object and presents that essence to an audience of villagers whose experience of it causes them to peel back the layers of their own lives and see the forgotten, raw parts of themselves. The boys on the hillside, feeling the first brunt of Jo's power, are overcome by awe, while at home, an old couple, Corin and Nance, experience intense nostalgia, grief, terror, and overflowing love and for each other.
Lanagan uses this technique throughout the collection, describing emotions so viscerally that they take literal shape for the characters. In "Night of the Firstlings," a first-person account of the Passover night that killed all the first-borns in Biblical Egypt, the young narrator experiences visions as the house around him and his family quakes: "the air of the room was clear, though it ought to've been black, or green or red, beslimed, chockablock with limbs and bits, a-streak with organs and tubing and drippings and sludges." In another story, "hunger buzzes" around an undead figure "like a cloud of blowflies." In "Into the Clouds on High," a boy's mother is taken by spells: she goes quiet, and begins to float. Her son, Marcus, describes her in these moments as containing a "happiness [that] had flowered inside her... and went on and on, smooth and uninterruptable." She can be forced out of these spells by strong smells, such as flowers or cologne. She tells Marcus that she's being "called." When, inevitably, the final call arrives, Marcus describes the intense feeling emanating from his mother as an "out-rushing of nectar, of heat, of gold-green changefulness… the very air buzzed and poured with hope."
Though these descriptions are delivered to us on the backs of some sort of magic, I find myself nodding with recognition as a reader, much like Billy in "The Point of Roses":
"Oof. Arf," said Castle. "I'm all gone to petals and come back again."
Yes, thought Billy, they're about the words for it.
Reading Lanagan's work has always felt, for me, like reading something so familiar it surprises you; it's the opposite of that writerly advice to "make the familiar strange." Lanagan is already writing the strange, and that's what we expect to find. What we don't expect, then, is the familiarity, the hearth and home, the worry and the relief. In the world of these stories, a simple rose can have its essence magnified into something unbearably surreal, and yet it's so imbued with real experience and memory, that what is left after the magnification recedes is something human and realistically nuanced, such as the wonder and fear of a small boy, or the love between a man and a wife who have grown old and tired together.
"Familiar" should not translate, however, as "easy," and much of Lanagan's writing is hard to swallow, thematically. If you've read the outstanding Tender Morsels, then you know that she does not shy away from violence, abuse, and heartbreak. In that novel, the protagonist Liga is raped repeatedly by her own father, and then again by a pack of village boys, and must escape into a magical world of her own making to keep her two daughters safe. Though much of Yellowcake supplants wonder for violence, it is not without its darker tales, the most notable of which is "Catastrophic Disruption of the Head," a brutal retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Tinderbox." For a fairy tale archeologist, searching for the bones of a story in something reformed, this chilling adaptation is familiar, yes, but it's a shock to the system. Hans Christian Andersen's tale of a young soldier who finds his fortunes -- as well as three supernatural dogs to deliver it to him -- available at the flick of a lighter is transformed into the tale of a shell-shocked psychopath, murderer, and rapist who stumbles upon the means to get whatever his depraved heart desires. It's a hard one to slog through, but impossible to tear your eyes away from, and the final line will cause you to question exactly what you're reading when you open faithful Andersen up again.
I fell in love with Lanagan's writing over Tender Morsels and The Brides of Rollrock Island, two exquisitely rendered folklore adaptations that tell women's tales of abuse, neglect, betrayal, and redemption. Lanagan's writing is imbued with deep emotion and also laced with sea air, the taste of berries, and the dripping nectar-smell of hope. Yellowcake, for me, was a return to a writer whose intense work has enchanted me with its intelligence, strangeness, and power. These are stories worth hungering for.
Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan
Knopf Books for Young Readers