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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.
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9 comments

…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.

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