Blurb from Amazon for ‘The Onion Girl’:
Newford: where magic lights dark streets, where myths walk in modern shapes, where humans and older beings must work to keep the whole world turning. At the centre of the entwined lives of all the Newford tales stands a young artist named Jilly Coppercorn, whose paintings capture the hidden beings that dwell in Newford’s shadows. With her tangled hair, her paint-splattered jeans, a smile perpetually on her lips, she’s darted in and out of the Newford tales. Now, at last, we have Jilly’s own story. Behind the painter’s fey charm there’s a dark secret, and a past she’s laboured to forget. That past is coming to claim her now, threatening all she loves. “I’m the onion girl,” Jilly Coppercorn says. “Pull back the layers of my life, and you won’t find anything at the core. Just a broken child. A hollow girl.” She’s run from the past and the truth for so long. She’s very, very good at running. But life has just forced Jilly to stop.
As I am already a fan of Charles DeLint, I have to confess I expected a lot from this novel- and it didn’t disappoint. A staggeringly complex- but never bewildering- blend of Native American myths, faerie folklore and parallel dimensions, this had all the hallmarks of a classic Delintian Newford novel. It brought together favoured and familiar characters from the fictional, and oh so magical, town of Newford, and expanded on them, giving them even more depth and meaning. The heroine, Jilly Coppercorn– will-o-the-wisp painter, creative soul and visionary-has a backstory that COULD have turned into a sob story, and yet instead becomes a tale of overcoming abuse with courage, creativity and dignity. Struggling to recover after a vicious hit and run, she is at once vulnerable and resilient, almost enigmatic, like a lot of DeLint’s characters.
I’d originally read the heart-wrenching tale of Jilly’s childhood as a stand-alone short story in a wonderful anthology of DeLint’s writings, but it was even better when bookended with Jilly’s present life, and her current bitter guilt over how she ran away from that life, only to leave her little sister behind. Unbeknownst to her, her younger sister Raylene has magical abilities of her own, that have sprung up away from the creative, unique sanctuary of Newford. Unlike Jilly, who was able to sculpt and paint a new positive life for herself, poor Raylene has become trapped in an increasingly-violent cycle of crime, victimization and bitterness. With this wild, unpredictable magic fuelling her rage, Raylene becomes intent on punishing Jilly, who she believes abandoned her to a childhood ravaged by abuse and violence.
The references to Native American culture and myth- especially through the character of Joe Crazy Dog, a Native American shapeshifter- were also skillful and I felt they were respectfully done. It was atmospheric, moving and at times, lyrical. I wasn’t too taken with the character of Pinky Miller, Raylene’s (literal) partner in crime and best friend- she was so brash, too mean, too menacing for me, but I did love Jilly’s friends, Wendy, Sophie and her dream-boyfriend, Jeck, who she can only see when she is sleeping. DeLint’s cult-status ‘Crow Girls’ also feature in some of the most memorable scenes.
I do however think that Jilly’s relatonship with her best friend-and-perhaps-one-true-love Geordie Riddell was too agonizing and angsty for me though- for Chrissakes, just get together! It was also perhaps a little TOO intense at points, in both plot, characterization and theme. It was at points almost harrowing, sometimes difficult to read. I loved the character of Jilly- I relate to her a lot- and I didn’t really enjoy seeing her suffer. Ultimately though, this was a novel that moved me, intrigued me and stayed with me. Well worth the read.
Overall rating: 8 out of 10