NESFA Press (2009)
Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts, March 2010
This one was recommended to me as “domestic fantasy”, which was intriguing from the start. Also, it was Jo Walton. Say no more. Jo Walton has this amazing knack of writing novels that feel like they would have been written a century ago, if our current genre traditions existed then.
What I wasn’t expecting was a marvellous, complex narrative that entirely messed with my head. Walton uses omniscient narration beautifully, weaving in and out of her characters’ heads, shifting perspective exactly when it needs to be shifted. The narrative is non-linear in many ways, not least because Taveth, the most important of the protagonists, has the ability to see people’s pasts and futures, and views the world through a Doctor Manhattan style haze. Part of the story indeed is the discussion of how to tell the story, between the few people left to tell it, and the narrative makes it clear that this telling is imperfect and unreliable, filtered through the eyes of those who missed much of what was going on. We shift from time period to time period, like flitting through the collective memories of the household, back and forth, until a coherent picture forms. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to read it all over again when you’re done, just to see how she did it.
At its heart, Lifelode is the story of a comfortable manor house family. The four adults of the household are happily polygamous, each fulfilling their ‘lifelode’ or life’s purpose: Ferrand is the lord of the manor, his sweetmate Taveth runs the household, his wife Chayra makes ceramics, and Taveth’s husband Ranal works the farm. Their children are a joyful bunch, running around in the sunshine days of the harvest and wondering what their own lifelodes will be.
Their lives changed with the arrival of two visitors to Applekirk: Jankin the scholar and Hanethe, Ferrand’s great grandmother and the former lord of the manor, who has been living for many generations in the East, a place where the gods walk and yeya (magic) is so powerful that those who wield it are not quite human.
While Jankin’s casual flirtations stirs the women of the household, creating disharmony in the family, it is Hanethe’s return that causes the greater disruption. She is fleeing a goddess whom she wronged, who may well bring her vengeance down upon the family who harbours her. Slowly, step by step, the comfortable life of Applekirk is to be unravelled and nothing will ever be the same again…
This is an intense read – I recommend having at least a good hour or two to devote to it in the first instance, to get the hang of how the book works. Trying to pick it up and put it down again in my usual habits worked against me, and it wasn’t until I was able to sit for longer periods and immerse myself that it really began to unfold.
Lifelode is deceptive – it seems to be a gentle family drama, reminiscent of Galsworthy or Austen, with a rigorous fantasy background dripfed to the reader through their daily lives. Walton’s actual influences are detailed at the end, in a mini-interview in the form of a “frequently asked questions” list that is definitely worth a read – though I didn’t feel that many of those explanations were necessary. The way the world works, and the differences between the part of the world we see and those we only hear about were perfectly clear in the narrative, if revealed only a small piece at a time.
It also feels as if Lifelode is a comment upon or in some way a reaction to just about everything you might think of as “standard” fantasy fiction. It is the anti-quest novel, the anti-court romance, a story about those who stay behind and those who come back. The great adventures, such as they are, happens off the page, out of sight. It’s about getting on with things, day by day, in the face of any and all challenges. It’s a story about women and children, about desires and wants and needs, and making sure everyone has a hot meal inside them before they man the barricades.
The boundaries of what fantasy fiction can be and what it can achieve have been expanded by this book. And about damn time.