Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The benefits of fantasy

I've been reading a lovely book which was sheer, delightful escapism perfectly designed for me, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, a professor of history at the University of Southern California and former visiting scholar at Oxford University, where the novel opens. It's about a young American professor of the history of science researching rare, old manuscripts in the Bodleian Library. She's also a witch. Yes, this is a story of witches and vampires, climbing on the Twilight bandwagon, "Harry Potter for grown-ups" etc, etc. I almost passed it by, but flicking through, on one of those mindless days when nothing, nothing in the bookshop appeals, a phrase and a scene here and there caught and compelled my attention. Six hundred-odd pages later, I'm so glad they did.

It's a long, silly tale pure and simple, of lost alchemical manuscripts, ancient feuds and spells, with no claims to transcend its genre. But it's excellently done and, like all the fantasy and science fiction that works for me (Ursula Le Guinn, Marge Piercy, Christopher Priest), the whole preposterous edifice is full of metaphors for feelings, relationships and personality traits that we can all recognise and identify with.

The first of these is the notion of the scholar as witch or vampire. I found myself scanning through a mental parade of the fellows, lecturers and professors I work with. Oh my goodness, nearly every one a believable witch, with a vampire or two mixed in! That frisson of greater-than-average brainpower and focus wonderfully captured and played with.

Three types of 'creature' live alongside humans in the fantasy world of Deborah Harkness: witches (clever, energetic, practical and powerful), vampires (ancient, steely and perfect) and daemons (the crazy, intense, creative ones). Think about it. Isn't this just as convincing as the Myers-Briggs personality typology?

Then there's the central relationship between Diana, the historian and witch, and Matthew, the scientist and vampire. Outrageously romantic and cliched as it is, this depiction of overwhelmingly powerful attraction, fear, hostility and accommodation between members of two different species is a pretty persuasive metaphor for relations between the sexes. Daft as its details are, they actually made me think some rather profound thoughts.

Other aspects of the book I enjoyed were the evocation of Oxford's ancient buildings and misty winter riverside, the founding of a preposterous quest in a detailed knowledge of the history of science, and the loving descriptions of wine and herbs, yoga and meditation as doorways into magic - yes, they are for me too! Not to mention, finally, an ancient castle in the Auvergne, whose vampire owners have lived there for hundreds of years and speak Medieval Occitan. Readers whose tastes don't run in such directions may snort derisively at how much I loved all this, but oh I did! I can't wait for Book Two of the trilogy, wherein Diana and Matthew flee 21st century dangers by 'timewalking' to Elizabethan London, where the author can play with the stuff of her non-fiction book, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution.

8 comments:

marja-leena said...

I do not 'snort derisively' for I do love certain kinds of fantasy, especially the well-researched, sort of historical fiction kind. This is going on my reading wish list with thanks for the great review, Jean.

Melinda Fleming said...

Oh, how guilty I felt at enjoying this book! How I pooh-poohed myself for the cliche'd elements (which stand out for me like traffic signs). Yet I enjoyed it for exactly the same reasons you mention here. Probably a few others too, which I can't remember now on account of being too lazy. Been to Oxford only for a weekend visit long years ago, but I can tell the author has real knowledge of the denizens of British academia. Nice to have it confirmed by your observations.

Pica said...

I have no guilt (or no shame) for enjoying books like this. It's going on my list, Jean, thanks.

Dale said...

I love long, silly tales!

Fire Bird said...

your enjoyment is infectious...

earlybird said...

I agree with Fire Bird - you have led me to spending £4.99 for the Kindle version...

Sounds good. I'll let you know how I get on.

Jean said...

Melinda, I'm so delighted to hear that you loved this for all the reasons I did! I hope Earlybird and anyone else inspired by my enthusiasm will enjoy as much a we did :-)

liliannattel said...

That sounds like so much fun. Good genre fiction can be really satisfying.