The Time of the Giants
Auckland University Press, $27.99,
Maddigan’s Fantasia opens with Garland Maddigan’s note to herself, “Written down things always seem true. Weird!” The Time of the Giants is another text concerned with the reality of the written word and has the narrator regularly stepping in to insist, “Don’t go thinking this is a metaphor; this is real.” Most powerful of all is the effect of words in Dreamhunter, where writing the right letters into his forehead can transform the figure of a man carved out of sand into a servant, a father figure, and, finally, a friend with a will of his own. In the strange but compelling world of Dreamhunter, the noun – spelt NOWN – is an action word. Each of these YA fantasy novels is centrally concerned with the relationship between language and reality. Each is also about particular geographies and the relationship between place and time.
Dreamhunter, true to the conventions of other-world fantasy, opens with pages of maps. Unusually, two sets of maps have to be provided: one map of the ordinary geography of Founderston, Doorhandle and Tricksie Bend, and one map of The Place. For while most people walk on past Tricksie Bend to the Whynew Falls, certain people vanish at a certain point into an alternative geography, a geography of dreams. Here dreamhunters can pick up dreams to take back to audiences in Founderston, who wear dress pyjamas to dream the dreamhunters’ dreams in unison at the Opera.
Like Philip Pullman with His Dark Materials, Elizabeth Knox has created a whole world around an idea. This world is brilliantly realised in every detail, with the effect of the dreamhunting industry in 1905 Southland (the land area that in this world exists in place of our Australia and New Zealand) worked out in terms of career aspirations, drug use, cultural values and economics. In this world, people’s assumptions are often very different from our own: cinema, for instance, is assumed to be necessarily documentary, since it is assumed cinema cannot create fiction without the audience inhabiting point-of-view, as you do in dreams, and without the engagement of all five senses. As with all good fantasy, this expands your sense of possibilities and makes you want to examine your own assumptions all over again.
But this kind of intellectual engagement is secondary to the engagement with plot and character. The story unfolds with layer upon layer of brilliant complication. A Bildungsroman plot about two cousins coming to terms with their first, legal attempts to cross over the border into The Place is combined with an increasingly complex and dark suspense story involving government corruption. And we care so tremendously about this because the characters are so compelling.
Laura and Rose are “two pips in the core of the apple”, like Snow White and Rose Red. As with these fairytale sisters, the cousins Laura and Rose are very different from each other: Rose is golden-haired, out-spoken, self-possessed, while Laura is dark, dreamy, lacking in initiative, but forced into a position where she has to make some extraordinarily difficult decisions. They are not just personality types, either, but characters who seem extraordinarily real, so that everything they do and say seems to be in character, but never in a way you could predict. The minor characters are equally well realised, so that you only recognise quite how well you know them when they do something absolutely appropriate, and you find yourself loving them for it: as when Rose’s father Chorley answers a failed dreamhunting candidate’s question about who gets to keep the ribbon that marked the boundary between the earthly geography of Tricksie Bend and the unearthly geography of The Place, by picking up the ribbon and quietly handing it over.
Perhaps my favourite character of all though is Laura’s sandman Nown – the golem figure her father makes for her, and whom she recreates for herself out of sand and the written word. Literally, as Laura observes, a “figure of speech”, the sandman is a character who seems to represent emblematically a quality that has always distinguished Knox’s writing: the same sort of uncanny resonance, the sense of meaning that seems to hang on every concrete detail, that you get in a dream. In one passage, Laura, walking ahead of the sandman, thinks to herself “that, having gone looking for knowledge, she should recognise it when she found it walking softly behind her.” She pauses to let the sandman catch up, only for him to pause too. In the same way, a kind of knowledge seems to walk softly behind every sentence of Knox’s, an uncanny kind of knowledge that you seem always to be reading just a little bit ahead of.
The Time of the Giants is Anne Kennedy’s second collection of poems. Like her first, Sing-Song, this is poetry that has such a strong narrative that you find yourself in the unusual situation of reading a book of poetry you cannot bring yourself to put down. The Time of the Giants is original and wonderful poetry, every line having its own extraordinary rhythm and turn of phrase. But it could also, like Dreamhunter, be described as a Bildungsroman, about the growing up (very much up, in this case) of a girl into young adulthood. The Time of the Giants is also, again like Dreamhunter, a brilliant fantasy novel that plays games with figures of speech and the relationship between fantasy and realism.
In Dreamhunter, the unearthly geography of The Place is mostly described as a peculiar kind of location, but the idea is raised that perhaps it is really more a different time than a different place which the dreamhunters enter. In The Time of the Giants, giants are understood to belong to another time, a time known to us now only through myths which, in our culture, have mostly passed down to us from Ireland. But Kennedy’s suggestion that the headlands of New Zealand were formed when giants were washed up from a shipwreck of an early settler’s ship from Ireland links the time of the giants to New Zealand geography just as the geography of Ireland has always been mythologised as the result of various battles and projects undertaken by the giants long ago.
The story, however, takes place not in the past, but in present-day New Zealand. What if the first settlers from Ireland brought “the giant cells jingling/in all their bodies as if they were change/in the pocket folds of the hills”? What if those giant cells produced giant children today, not quite the size of Finn MacCool, but over seven foot tall while still at school? What would it be like to be Moss – seven foot six at the age of 19 – who works as a librarian, studies Irish literature and feels too tall ever to be loved by a man?
Moss’s story is told as a fairytale. She hides her height from her first boyfriend (a “small” microbiologist turned food technologist) in a series of fairytale-like episodes. These include arranging to meet at cafés (sitting down), slipping into her cinema seat before her date arrives, faking a twisted ankle so as to crawl to a picnic site, meeting at the swimming pool and not getting out of the pool before he disappears into the changing room. All absurd, though no more absurd than the lengths many of us went to as teenagers in love.
And although it is clear to the reader that this is a fairytale, and that Moss is going to end up not with the microbiologist but the red-haired fellow giant, the Irish literature student Fintan, Moss herself, and the other characters, can only live it out as if it were real life – which, of course, for them, it is. Struggling to live up to cinema conventions of romance on their first date, Paul and Moss inevitably fail “because this is real life/or a poem anyway.” These are, in fact, the most realistic poems I have ever read, as rich in precise detail and subtle social satire as a novel by Jane Austen or Kate Atkinson. All the way through the narrator teasingly distinguishes between metaphor and reality:
The family is real and the knitting in the mouth like a
is real, however
the glass-blowing isn’t real. The kitten itself isn’t real either
but a nice touch.
But of course it is impossible not to read the story itself symbolically, and as an irresistible invitation to read your own life as fairytale, and to read fairytales as clues to your own life.
Maddigan’s Fantasia is Margaret Mahy’s latest YA novel. Like all her fiction, this is full of ideas, narrative twists and inventive wordplay. The dust-jacket informs us Maddigan’s Fantasia is “soon to be a major television series”, and it will make a brilliant one, with the tv format compensating for the rather weak characterisation. However, the alert and intellectually engaged readers likely to follow anything based on a Mahy novel may still find themselves dissatisfied with some of the metaphysics of time-travel as worked out (or not worked out) in this story.
Maddigan’s Fantasia – a kind of marvellous travelling circus – travels across a world in post-Chaos time, referring to maps that cannot be relied on. The life of the central character, 12-year-old Garland Maddigan, is further complicated when her father is shot dead by “Road Rats” and three mysterious figures enter her life, two boys and their baby sister. (Actually, although I count them here as three figures, the baby sister is so under-characterised that it is difficult to remember when she is or is not present. In my experience, where a baby is present, the action invariably revolves around the baby and the baby’s demands. On screen, of course, the baby will be more visible. This is important, as her reappearance later in the novel provides a crucial plot twist.)
The novel begins with a passage from Garland’s diary, only to move quite quickly into third-person narrative. Although it is a relief to move beyond Garland’s rather banal storytelling voice, this shift makes the diary-writing motif seem pointless, until the mysterious boys, having travelled back through time, turn out to have brought back from the future Garland’s diary, which tells the story of what has not yet taken place. The idea of having the diary text constantly alter as a result of the children’s actions brilliantly represents the unsettling relationship between reality, narrative and time that the novel explores.
This phenomenon ought surely to be connected with the way the words fly about and alter themselves in the texts of this post-Chaos period, but Chaos seems to have been brought about by some vague “Wars of Destruction” and not to have anything to do with the discovery of time travel, after all. At one stage, Garland herself travels back in time to try to undo the death of her father, but she succeeds only in making things worse, before retreating backwards (or forwards) to her original point. According to the logic of time-travel as I understand it to be working in the novel, the situation in the present ought now to be quite different from that situation as Garland left it. Yet her intervention into the past seems, in fact, to have had no – or little – effect at all.
Time-travel is an exhilaratingly complicated concept, the sort of concept likely to be relished by Mahy devotees. But, with its disruption of present time and present space, time-travel takes any plot (including that of Maddigan’s Fantasia) into shaky ground. This can be made to work, but only if this very shakiness is itself mapped out with the precision with which Elizabeth Knox maps her landscape of dreams.
Anna Jackson co-teaches a children’s fantasy literature course in the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.