The opening pages of Lisa Goldstein’s long awaited new novel are vivid with otherness. Goldstein takes us back in time and space to the Berkeley of 1971, that romanticised time of possibility, and then out of town to the verdant Napa vineyards, where ever so quietly she offers us hints of magic in the real moments. (Later she will reveal the reality in the magical too, but for now this will do.)
Our guide is Will, a student, whose best friend Ben introduces him to a beautiful young woman, Livvy. At the start Ben is dating Livvy’s actress sister Maddie, so we meet them at the family home, along with precocious but shy younger sister Rose, and their flaky-seeming mother Sylvie. Gradually, in flickers of conversation, half-glimpses of something, Will begins to recognise in the Feierabend family not just quaint eccentricity but wrongness. The truth is, not so much stranger than fiction, as an aspect of both truth and fiction – folktale or fairytale.
The Feierabends have remarkable good luck, success at any venture, but it comes at a price. When Livvy falls ‘sick’ Will learns the story, via a missing tale from The Brothers Grimm, of an ancestor trading his daughter to a mystery Faerie for success and wealth. Livvy will sleep for 7 years, serving in the other world’s battles all the while, and all will be well. That is until Will takes it upon himself to rescue her.
From the beginning The Uncertain Places made clear that it was a Story, that most of its characters knew they were in a Story or learned quickly, that its telling defined the world. Through a sequence of retellings, 1800s Germany, Prohibition-era California, 80s America, The Uncertain Places becomes recursive, Story about Story about Story, and its importance in holding the world together.
Will rescues Livvy and they marry, and the cycle repeats, only now Will has broken the bargain once, and a deal is a deal. Once more he must renegotiate, fight, or lose his son for 7 years.
This second half of the book is faster, more dramatic, more complex than the first, yet somehow less. Goldstein’ s Faerie is reached through the ‘uncertain places’ the littorals where zones change, forest edges onto hillsides for instance. Yet uncertain suggests hesitation, as used by Todorov. There is a sense repeatedly in The Uncertain Places that Goldstein is adopting the descriptive language used for the grammar of fantasy and by making substantial the metaphoric she subverts it. Will, and others, when faced with the strange, do not hesitate, but dive in (literally on one occasion.)
The consequences within the novel are fixed, hesitancy or not, a deal remains a deal. For the reader there is an abrupt shift. The gentle, pastoral Napa scenes, reminiscent of John Crowley’s Little, Big, give way to a denser, Lewis Carroll dreamland curiously anarchic despite its contracts and bondings. Goldstein’s Faerie world is not only darker, that’s commonplace in Fantasy, but more surreal, more representative of the human subconscious.
The Uncertain Places begins with a light touch:
It was Ben Avery who introduced me to Livvy, Livvy and her haunted family. This was in 1971, when Ben and I were sophomores in college. A lifetime ago, another world, but it seems like I can still remember all of it, every motion, every color, every note of music. For one thing, it was the year that I fell in love. But for another, I don’t think that anyone who experienced what I did that year could possibly forget it.
It was the year that I fell in love. Wait a minute, haunted family? That’s what Goldstein does so well, slipping literal magic in amongst real life magic. Later you realise that wonderfully happy tone is past tense, and in the closing pages the circle turns, there is a pang of lost something that tentatively queries the instauration the novel hints at. The events Will refers to in that first paragraph actually take place over two decades, hippie Berkeley becomes Reagan America, hope is a little diminished, but that was the year that I fell in love. This is important where the haunted family becomes less so.
Those familiar with Goldstein’s previous work, (and if I may be permitted an aside, that is far too few, she is in her quieter way, at best as interesting and thoughtful as Crowley or Wolfe) will recognise patterns in The Uncertain Places. It will not surprise that young Rose proves crucial, the young sister’s awareness enlightening the adults. Nor that family secrets work both ways. The self-consciously literary crosshatching of secret texts and the real world recurs in most of Goldstein’s best novels. The Uncertain Places may be one of her best.
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