Monday, June 06, 2005

A Womanly Novel

Child of a Rainless Year by Jane Lindskold

Well, I’m finally starting to sink my teeth into my novel, and it seems to be sucking up most of my verbal creativity. So I’m going to try to write some reviews to keep my hand in.

Jane Lindskold is probably best known for her Firekeeper books, though I personally prefer the Athanor novels, Changer and Legends Walking. Child of a Rainless Year is her most recently published novel, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever read that left me thinking “That was definitely written by a woman.” Not saying that this is good or bad, just that it’s a rare experience.

So, what is it about Child of a Rainless Year that makes it so distinctively female? First, the obvious: The protagonist, Mira, is a woman and her strongest relationships are with other women—the mother who disappeared when our heroine was a child, and her recently deceased foster-mother. The foster-mother’s journal provides a second narrative thread that occupies probably a quarter to a third of the text; as such, she qualifies as a second viewpoint character. Most of the action is motivated by the main character’s search for the missing mother. So this is definitely a book about women.

This observation connects Child of a Rainless Year to a handful of other fantasy novels I’ve read over the years. Quick, what do the following books have in common?

Walking the Labyrinth by Lisa Goldstein
Slow Funeral by Rebecca Ore
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
Mockingbird by Sean Stewart

Answer: They all involve a young woman discovering and coming to terms with a magical heritage, through a chain of events beginning with the loss of an older female relative (mother, aunt, grandmother). And except for the Goldstein (I don’t care much for her writing, but others may), they’re all really good reads. Child of a Rainless Year is actually something of an outlier in this group, in that Mira is in her fifties.

The rest of this post contains spoilers: you can read it here

Second, the central dichotomy of this book turns out to be about seeing versus being seen. This is not a point, I think, that would have ever inspired a male author to write a novel: it’s just not that big an issue in most men’s lives, with certain exceptions. (Notice that I’m talking strictly about seeing with one’s eyes, not about other types of perception that sometimes go under the same name, eg. “I see you as the kind of person who…”)

Vain Colette leaches colors from her surroundings and paints herself brightly, to become as she says “the sun in every gathering”. She’s all about being looked at. Artist Mira is relatively indifferent to the regard of others; she dedicates herself to creating beauty in her surroundings. Colette paints the family house white, plain setting for the jewel that is herself. When Mira gets done with it, the house is a baroque masterpiece, the ultimate Painted Lady.

I have to say that Lindskold’s usually competent prose fails rather badly at conveying this essential point. Colette criticizes Mira’s artistic bent by saying that the child Mira had gone into “externalizing” color rather than “internalizing” it. What she means is that color should be used on oneself rather than on other things; but the expression of it is vague and clumsy.

Possibly the terms “internalize” and “externalize” mean different things to people trained in the visual arts. To a martial artist such as myself, the usage here seems rather backwards. Surely Mira’s keen understanding of color and her generous and confident use of it show that she has “internalized” color far more than Colette, who persists in applying it only to her exterior?

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