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It don’t matter if you’re black or white… November 29, 2011

Posted by dolorosa12 in books, childhood, fangirl, reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

…but if you’re grey, forget about it!

Reading books in a series which you loved as a child or teenager is on occasion an unsettling experience. Some childhood favourites stand the test of time, remaining as true in adulthood as they were in youth. The works of Gillian Rubinstein, Adele Geras, Catherine Jinks and Philip Pullman remain thus for me. Those of Victor Kelleher I get even more out of than I did as an adolescent. Some of the things he says are hidden until you’ve lived long enough, I think. If any of these authors were to write another book in the series I enjoyed, I would be delighted.

But sometimes, looking at the books of your childhood with an adult eye is a confronting and disappointing experience. Something about them doesn’t stand up. Themes which previously seemed intensely relevant to your life appear less significant, or at least less well-expressed. The truth which you previously drew from such books is less true, less significant, less burning.

I’m sad to say that, upon reading The Sending, the latest in Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, I realised this series was of the second type. Spoilers follow.

Carmody is, above all things, possessed of a unique ability to understand and convey the mindset, hopes, fears and dreams of a particular type of teenager. This teenager is one who is shy, artistic and bookish, hyper-empathetic and self-aware, and just realising what a cruel place the world can be. There are some adults like this, but not so many. I was one such teenager. Her books, with their message that if we all were more empathetic and compassionate, the world would be a much better place, resonated deeply with me.

Don’t get me wrong. I still think empathy and compassion are wonderful, admirable qualities, and that we should strive towards them at all times. But I can no longer look past Carmody’s converse argument, which is that lack of empathy and compassion is a sort of sickness or disease. (This is something she argues pretty much across the board in her books: in the Obernewtyn books and in Alyzon Whitestarr, characters can perceive a mental sickness in the antagonistic, non-empathetic characters, while in the Legendsong books, multiple worlds are literally dying because people in them can no longer hear the ‘song’ which is the metaphor for the harmony of creation.)

Such an explanation seems to me to remove responsibility from such characters for their actions, and it removes responsibility from the heroic, empathetic characters to help the former. But, more unforgiveably, it removes ambiguity and nuance. I find this problem most pronounced in the Obernewtyn books. The heroes are all noble-minded, compassionate and pacifist, the villains are all mindlessly violent, bigoted and acquisitive. The heroes have tragic pasts that they rise above. The villains have no backstory.

Just about the only character with any hint of moral ambiguity was Domick, a Misfit (ie one of the good guys) sent to infiltrate the Council (the baddies) and send back information. The horrors he sees cause him to sever ties with Obernewtyn and renounce non-violence. This is an entirely explicable and justifiable character arc. When you’re fighting evil, you can’t help but become a little bit morally grey.

But of course there’s no place for nuance in the world of Obernewtyn. Someone like Domick can’t exist. So he’s killed off in The Stone Key, the fifth book in the series.

I realise I’m taking Carmody to task for not writing the kind of book I want to read. She’s free to write whatever she wants, and I’m free to stop reading, but I honestly feel her arguments would be stronger if things weren’t always so morally clear-cut. Why, in a six-book series with a cast of characters that takes up five pages of the book, does only one person display an ounce of moral ambiguity? Why do all the other characters who suffer abuse, discrimination or horrors of some kind go mad, become consumed by grief or fear, but never, ever get angry or reevaluate their beliefs? And why does Carmody think that ‘he just loves to hurt those weaker than himself/is power-hungry’ is a catch-all explanation for cruelty and injustice?

I will keep reading, because I’ve been doing so for nearly 15 years, but I fear a terrible fate has befallen me. I’ve grown up too much to get any life-defining, resonant truth out of the Obernewtyn books, and am continuing to read out of a mixture of nostalgia and a desire to find out how it all ends.

NB: I should add that in spite of this problem, I do find Carmody a very fine storyteller. There was not one point at which I wanted to close the book, and I gulped the whole thing down in just over a day. I have no issues with the overall story or themes. I just think they are weakened by problematic characterisation.


1. Catie - November 29, 2011

The Obernewtyn series makes me so sad, because I liked it so much, but the gap between books was too long for me and now I fear I will never be able to get back into them. I think the last book I read was ‘The Keeping Place’. I’m not sure, after rereading Obernewtyn recently and reading this post, whether it is worth the effort. But when I was younger, how I longed for these books to come out! I wanted to see how the story ended, but now I have lost contact with them and I don’t even remember how the story went. *sigh*

Sorry for the rambling, suffice to say my feelings about Obernewtyn=so conflicted. Thanks for the post!

dolorosa12 - December 1, 2011

Oh, I’d hate for you to misinterpret my feelings about the book and series. I still love Carmody’s overall plot, and I still think, if we’re going on plot alone, she can tell a good story. And, after everything, I do find the question of whether it is possible to build a truly just and compassionate society a compelling one. I just think Carmody’s answer to the question is weakened by her reluctance (or inability) to engage with any kind of moral ambiguity. It detracts from her characters’ humanity and means her story operates at a remove from human experience.

Sorry for the slightly late reply.

Catie - December 1, 2011

Oh no, that’s not what I meant! I meant I feel like I have lost track of the plot, and don’t know that I could get back into it. Your comments about reacting to the lack of moral ambiguity in the books perhaps reinforces my idea that maybe this is one of those series best enjoyed in the past for me. That probably wouldn’t be the case if the books had come out closer together, or I had reread them frequently, or had otherwise kept those close connections. I think maybe crazedturkey and I are in a similar boat, though I’m not sure that I will read it at all.

2. Crazedturkey - November 30, 2011

I have a similar problem! The gap is so long that now I have problems and so much of the magic is lost.

I wonder if perhaps I was willing to be more cut and dried when younger but now I want things in shades of grey ( BUT I also think that really undervalues the young adult reader who can ABSOLUTELY read the grey).

All I know is whereas I would have run out breathlessly to get this book in the past I’m not really that fussed. I’m sure I’ll read it eventually, but probably only out of nostalgia. My investment in the characters is long gone.

dolorosa12 - December 1, 2011

The thing that makes me sad is that there are so many YA books (not just written now, but written contemporary to Carmody’s earlier work) that do engage with questions of moral ambiguity, so it’s not like she’s avoiding doing so out of some kind of misguided awareness of her target audience’s sensitivities. (And for the record, those morally grey books are not depressing to read, and in fact can be even more uplifting because of their willingness to explore other facets of the human experience.)

3. Sycorax - December 23, 2011

Yes, yes, yes!

That aspect of her writing started to bother me when I read the first Legendsong book, as a teenager. The whole negative emotions equals sickness idea is most explicit in that series and in ‘Alizon Whitestarr’, I think. I can see that attitude in the Obernewtyn Chronicles as well, but, as she’s not beating you over the head with it to the extent she is in Legendsong, I find it less grating. You’re right, it is sad that she doesn’t explore moral abiguity. I doubt I would have engaged with the series as intensely as an adult, partly for that reason, so I’m glad I started and fell in love with the it when I was twelve.

4. Lauren - January 4, 2012

I absolutely agree. For me a further piece of evidence for this was that when Angina (one of the goodies) experiences hatred and a lack of compassion from a soldierguard (a baddie), he is so scarred by the experience that he essentially commits suicide. This paints the good characters as almost absurdly chivalrous, to the point where a conviction that empathy and compassion are not universal is enough to kill them outright.

5. Katie - February 27, 2012

In many ways, I felt the story was stronger when it was more specific to Elspeth and Obernewtyn – this was their story, not the story of the Land. Once it expanded, I fell out of love with it. It was hard to find the time to care when I was trying to work out who was who and whether they were on the right side or not.

I’ll always love the first two books and I will read the last book in the series, just to find out what happens. If only the series had conluded when I was still a teenager – it would have been so much more powerful for me. The magic has faded too much.

Dolorosa - February 27, 2012

Oh, I totally agree, and the message of empathy worked better when the story was so tightly focused on a relatively small group of people whose very nature meant they were fugitives in their own land.

My favourite character was always Domick (apart from in the first book where he’s kind of devoid of personality), so for obvious reasons my interest has waned…

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