Tag Archives: Fantasy

Children of the Cave by Virve Sammalkorpi (Transl. by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah): What’s real and what’s not.

Cover imagePeirene Press’s books are never anything but interesting. It’s founder and publisher, Meike Ziervogel, has a knack for seeking out unusual, thought-provoking fiction. For 2019 her theme is There Be Monsters. Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave follows a nineteenth-century anthropological expedition which goes horribly wrong, posing the question who are the monsters?

Iax Agolasky, a young bookish Russian, is overjoyed when renowned French explorer Jean Moltique takes him on as an assistant in his quest to find the ‘children of the shadows’ thought by Moltique to be the descendants of an ancient Anatolian tribe. Moltique appoints a crew to accompany them before they set off into the north-western Russian wilderness in May 1819 on an expedition which will stretch into 1822. It will be a year before, Moltique and Agolasky discover their tribe, shooting the first member to appear before them, by which time Moltique has been revealed as vainglorious and egotistical, his crew a bunch of ruffians. They set up camp at the mouth of the cave from which the creature, seemingly a wild boar with a human face, has appeared. Agolasky is mortified by what has happened. It is his patience and empathy which leads the tribe to eventually show themselves. These are not fabulous creatures but children displaying a variety of physical characteristics which society finds abhorrent, each with a story to tell. As Agolasky gains their trust, he becomes increasingly fearful for their safety, both from Moltique whose ambition for fame will bring the glare of publicity and from the men who see a more sinister opportunity to make money. As the years wear on, Moltique loses his wits while Agolasky falls in love and the men continue to plot until, three years after the expedition began, it’s brought to a violent end.

Sammalkorpi uses the conceit of a fragmented diary to tell her story, exploring themes of reality and unreality, and what it is to be human. The reaction to the children, left by loving parents for their own protection, found abandoned or rescued from freak shows, is all too believable. Sammalkorpi is careful to engage our sympathy for them, telling their stories through Agolasky, an empathetic and idealistic character, distraught at Moltique’s exploitation and the brutality of the men. In the diary’s final entry, written in 1868 days before his death, Agolasky reiterates the vividness of his memories while questioning their reliability. As the postscript with which Sammalkorpi cleverly ends her book suggests:

However hard we try to capture our experiences, we still cannot be totally sure about what is real and what is illusionary.

Not my favourite Peirene – that’s still Marie Suzun’s Her Father’s Daughter closely followed by And the Wind Sees All – but certainly an original one, well worth reading.

Flames by Robbie Arnott: Love trumps all

Cover imageFlames is not an easy book to write about. It’s quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Tasmanian writer Robbie Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead.

The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern. Levi appears to take it all in his stride but Charlotte is distraught, howling and screeching with a grief so wrenching it leaves Levi at a loss. These two are very different yet they share a bond of love. Levi decides that the best he can do for Charlotte is to save her from the same fate as their mother, commissioning a coffin which will contain her when the time comes. When Charlotte sees his notes, she takes off to a remote area of Tasmania, once a mining site now a wombat farm tended by a farmer who loves his stock devotedly. Panicked by her disappearance, Levi sets a private detective on Charlotte’s trail. Meanwhile, Charlotte has found herself a job as a farm hand. By the time the detective has tracked her down, events have taken a very dark turn at the farm where a large and glossy cormorant appears to be wreaking havoc.

Arnott’s novel is one of the most striking I’ve read this year. Told from a variety of perspectives – from a water-rat king to a foul-mouthed coffin maker, a man-made of fire to another driven mad by it – it could very easily have had me tossing it aside after a few pages but it drew me in with its gorgeous writing. From its show-stopping opening paragraph, it’s stuffed full of vivid images of the natural – and unnatural – world, its fantastical story tempered with humour. Arnott knits the threads of his tale together satisfyingly, returning us at its end to one of my favourite sections when a man discovers the joy of finding his other half who is not what you might expect. I’m not going to strain to find a meaning to it all – that would destroy its delight – but it’s safe to say that love of more than one sort triumphs. My advice is just sit back and enjoy the ride