Margo Lanagan

Allen & Unwin (2006)

ISBN: 9781741750911

Reviewed by Kathryn Linge (this review was first published in April 2008

I come to this collection with certain prior knowledge of Margo Lanagan and her successes, but no actual first-hand experience. And the prior knowledge is weighty, including a World Fantasy Award for Best Collection and a World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction (for “Singing My Sister Down”)*. From that respect, I am pleased to say that I don’t think there are any poor stories in this collection. Each is well-written and readable. However, neither did I find these stories particularly gripping. Indeed, a couple of weeks after reading the collection I find very few stories have stuck in my mind and I find it hard to picture some of them without rechecking the first few paragraphs. The stories are good, but I did not find them great.

Although I am only reviewing Black Juice here, I did in fact read all three of Lanagan’s collections one after the other, in chronological order. In terms of the writing, I think Black Juice stands right in the middle, where it chronologically belongs. White Time reads like a first story collection, although it was also the collection I most enjoyed. With each collection Lanagan’s writing becomes more developed but also perhaps more abstract and more stylised. I found the stories in Red Spikes too abstract to connect with.

The standout story for me in Black Juice is (reassuringly) the award winning “Singing My Sister Down”, narrated by a boy who must participate with his family in his sister’s punishment: sinking to her death into a hot pit of tar. After reading through all three of Lanagan’s collections, a number of signature ‘devices’ or writing styles became apparent, such as the development of a very well-defined and other-worldly setting, the use of slightly naive narrator, as well as other touches like the use of ‘made-up’ words and language. In “Singing My Sister Down” all these ‘devices’ work extremely well, without disharmony, and consequently the story seems like one of the most substantial in the book, when in terms of physical word count it is actually one of the shortest.

Many of the other stories use the same tricks, but unfortunately do not come across as well. An example of this is “Sweet Pippit” in which a group of elephants have been separated from Sweet Pippit (their carer? leader?), a monkey(?) who has been taken away by humans and whom they try to rescue. This story also incorporates many of Lanagan’s signature marks – idioms and an elephant dialect, other worldliness, and a young person (in this case an elephant) trying to make sense of the world. However, the story is nowhere near as substantial as “Singing My Sister Down”. In this case, it may be harsh to compare them because “Sweet Pippit” is also Lanagan’s (apparently requisite) ‘animal story’, in line with the ‘ant story’ (“The Queen’s Notice”) in White Time and both the ‘monkey story’ (“Monkey’s Paternoster”) and – to a lesser extent – the ‘budgie story’ (“A Feather in the Breast of God”) in Red Spikes. As a general rule, I find Lanagan’s attempts to write from the point of view of an animal irritating and so these stories are therefore going to appeal to me less because of this fact alone. Yet “Sweet Pippit” also demonstrates Lanagan’s excellent use of omission (see the numerous question marks above); Lanagan always errs on the side of less rather than more with excellent effect. A reader can understand that “Sweet Pippit” is about elephants even though the word ‘elephant’ is never actually mentioned and the danger or antagonism of the humans towards the elephants is also cleverly implied without ever explicitly stating what or why.

Another story that uses omission, or perhaps more accurately point of view, to good effect is “Red Nose Day”, a story which opens with two boys (youths? men?) on top of a building shooting clowns as they exit a performance. The phrase ‘Red Nose Day’ has certain connotations in Australia, used for a fundraising event for sudden infant death syndrome and so I find it interesting that Lanagan has used it as the title here (I can’t decide if it was intentional or not). Overall I felt this story lost its direction part way, as the diverging motives of the two main characters – one dealing with the trauma of being abused by a clown whilst a child, the other jealous of two more successful brothers – confused the story’s momentum. Portraying clowns as scary/evil is not particularly novel. However, what makes the story interesting to me is the use of an unreliable narrator. The narrator sees all clowns as evil because of his childhood abuse. Can we really believe his evil and dystopian view of the world he lives in? Is it as bad as he makes out? Perhaps, because his perception leads to action, it is.

Another story that deals with perception more explicitly is “House of the Many”, in which Dot leaves the enclosed and controlled community (cult?) that he has grown up in to live in the greater world outside. In doing so the shabby life he had been living is exposed. I particularly like how this story could relate to the way that everything seems big and impressive when you are young, but becomes less so as you grow up. “House of the Many” is by far the longest story in the book and perhaps as a result focuses more on development of the story’s characters, rather than just existing as a vignette of the ‘strange’ place in which the story takes place. Real time passes and overall “House of the Many” is more substantial than most of the other stories which come across as little more than ‘snapshots’. This was the only story not told in first person, another break from the ‘Lanagan style’.

“Perpetual Light” breaks from the ‘Lanagan style’ because it is the only story set in (somewhat) familiar territory – Wagga and Grenville in country New South Wales. It projects a believable, if somewhat dystopian, future and therefore has links to the ‘real world’ not apparent in the rest of the collection. “Perpetual Light” narrates the journey of Daphne, a student, to her grandmother’s funeral. The story deals with Daphne’s exertions over a dodgy car, bickering family, a student budget, and the funeral itself. However, like many of the other pieces in the collection, overall the story comes across as an interlude in a larger world rather than a defined story in itself. Oddly – and possibly because it has basis in reality – the world of “Perpetual Light” seems less developed than in other stories. Certain aspects, such as Daphne’s ambitions to grow seedlings do not obviously fit into the narrative and come across as extraneous window dressing, rather than an inherent piece of the tale.

Generally, the other stories in the collection also came over as short interludes in their particular world, rather than a complete story in their own right. “My Lord’s Man” follows a servant and his master (Mullord) as they track and retrieve Mullady, his beautiful but careless, and apparently heartless wife. What does he see in her? There is a pay off, but it wasn’t enough for me. “Wooden Bride” details an odd interlude as tomboy Matty attempts – for one day at least – to be a dignified, composed and wooden(?) bride. Her motivation and insecurity in achieving her goal are hard to understand without more context of the bridal ceremony in the society Lanagan describes here. In “Rite of Spring” a boy must perform an ancient rite at the top of a mountain and who overcomes the elements and the resentment of a brother who has been groomed for the task but can’t undertake it. In some ways “Rite of Spring” could be seen as a companion piece to “Wooden Bride”; both have descriptions of some action and adversity but result in triumph and ‘coming of age’ by the end. Similarly “Earthly Uses” and “Yowlinin” both narrate a series of events through which the narrator is able to free him or herself from a stagnant and destructive life. In “Earthly Uses” a boy’s journey to fetch an angel to attend his dying grandmother parallels an internal journey that allows him to break free from his rather awful Gran-Pa. In “Yowlinin”, a girl has been labelled an outcast and unlucky because her parents were taken by Yowlinin (some sort of inscrutable and powerful beast). The return of the Yowlinin and their attack on another family allow her to rise above the petty actions of others and strike out on her own.

Black Juice rates a 65% on the DAMN index, which I think is acceptable, but not particularly stellar. Like I said in the introduction, all the stories within the collection are well-written and readable. However there is something in their make-up (or lacking from their make-up), which also made them largely forgettable to me. While Lanagan is an excellent and detailed world-builder, I rarely felt enough connection with the characters to care about what happened to them. I’m very interested to read longer fiction by Lanagan, however, and conveniently she has a novel, Tender Morsels, due out later this year. I’m hoping that with more space and more development, I’ll feel more connection to Lanagan’s characters and therefore derive a more lasting satisfaction from reading the work.

* Plus: Black Juice won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction, the Ditmar Award for Best Collection and was an honour book in the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. Black Juice was also short-listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards, the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Young Adult Book and the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award for the Christina Stead Prize. As well as a World Fantasy Award, “Singing My Sister Down” also won the Aurealis for YA Short Fiction, the Golden Aurealis for Short Fiction, the Ditmar Award for Best Short Story, and was short-listed for the Nebula and the Hugo Awards.