Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Storyteller (Aaron Starmer)

As a child, I really loved book series: at my peak, I think I was following 10 or 11 at once. What I learned is that a series is hard to finish--authors feel the temptation to wrap everything up in a series of gaudy bows that give the fans everything they were hoping for, or they panic under the pressure and do something totally goofy. But I trusted Aaron Starmer--he had amazed and enchanted me with the previous two books, so I had no doubts he would wrap up this trilogy beautifully.

And he did! This book switches perspectives, which might seem like a risky move (and certainly has failed in the hands of other authors, notably Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth), but it works (duh). Now, we're reading Stella, the diary that Alistair's older sister Keri keeps. There are two levels to this that make such a narrative switch so engaging--the first is that Keri's voice is spot-on. She's a teenage girl, and she's perceptive and aware. She's not vapid, but is self-interested (I wanted to say self-obsessed, but that word seems too strong and negative): for instance, though there are tons of crazy things happening with Alistair, Keri still finds time to talk about her boyfriend woes and friendship struggles, just like any teenager would. I was incredibly satisfied by this complex, nuanced depiction of a teenage girl. Bravo.

The second reason this narrative switch is so interesting is how it affects our relationship with Alistair. The Riverman was told in first-person; The Whisper was told in third-person, but it was a close third, still focused through Alistair's perspective. The Storyteller is first-person again, but we're in someone else's mind, someone who doesn't and cannot know the intricacies and intimacies of Alistair's thoughts. In essence, as the series goes on, we become more and more removed from Alistair, who changes and separates from the identity we establish in book one. As Alistair loses his identity, we lose touch with Alistair. It's a brilliant device with a wonderful execution.

Speaking of identity, it's one of the things this novel--this series--explores so well. In this final volume, one of the questions at the heart of the identity theme is "who am I when I am special?" Starmer explores this idea in two parallel tales: the Alistair/Keri story, of course, but also through the tale of a magical, glowing wombat. It's like the phrase "it's lonely at the top," except that these aren't stories of success separating people, but inherent being (i.e., who they are) that sets them apart. It was true of Fiona in the first book, who is lonely and called to Aquavania, and it's true of Alistair in subsequent books, first because he is sucked into Aquavania and becomes the Riverman and later because he is the boy involved in a mysterious shooting and disappearance who doesn't behave like he used to. How does being special, set apart in some way, alter the person you are? In Keri's case, the question might even be "how does living adjacent to special change you?"

Starmer also masterfully crafts a razor-sharp balance between melancholy and wonder in this story--for starters, Alistair is transformed into a character entrenched in sadness, and the author smartly employs the use of the startingly-wise-child trope (as we, the readers, know that Alistair is actually many, many years older inside than he is outside) to create this contradictory, uncanny, fascinating character of a young boy who is world-weary. The story never tips into uncomfortably depressing, which is a feat in itself, but Alistair definitely reminds us that the world isn't a bright, shiny, beautiful place, even for children. But there is wonder, too: perhaps it's Keri's unwillingness to accept Alistair's bleak outlook, for perhaps it's the idea that life goes on, or maybe it's that Alistair doesn't give up, even in the face of his despair.

This balancing act happens in Keri's diary, too. Sure, we get entries about the things going on in her life, but it's not all we get out of Stella. There are these weird, interesting short stories, too, magical realism oddities that are at once wondrous--a story about a couple who builds a child out of peppermint, or the aforementioned glowing wombat--and bleak, full of surprising emotional turns (I won't spoil you) that effectively mirror the constant battle the Cleary family faces in trying to adjust to their new normal. In The Whisper, I said that the interwoven stories were reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales. If that's true, then the stories in this third volume are like the work of Angela Carter: brutal and sad and true, capable of tearing your heart out and taunting you with the still-beating mass of muscle. I said the one word that described The Riverman was "creepy." For The Whisper, it was "lonely." For The Storyteller, it's "marvelous," in the etymological sense--full of marvels, both joyful and sad.

So what's the final product? A novel that never, even for a second, stops demonstrating its exacting wit, its Technicolor vivacity, and its careful, well-planned narrative structures. A novel that soaks you in its briny lifeblood, then wrings you out delicately but without mercy. A series that is strange, sad, surreal, and satisfying. A must-not-miss. A victory.

My rating: 5/5