“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”: L P Hartley’s famous opening to The Go-Between has become proverbial, and most media nowadays enjoy the occasional nostalgia-trip into this exotic mix of familiarity and otherness the past provides. Unsurprisingly, fantasy authors have also taken advantage of this winning combination and set their stories not in an otherworldly fantasy place, but in a slightly older alternative real world. Rather than throwing the reader in at the deep end to sink or swim among such outrageously fantastical ideas as dragons, elves and feudalism, past-world fantasy eases us into a setting that is basically familiar, but with added magical quirks. Here there is no need for the author to explain all of the ins-and-outs of their world. Those pesky social, cultural, economical and meteorological questions Lord of the Rings fanatics quibble over are here a given; one merely has to explain the workings of the magical extra. So Diana Wynne Jones’s Magicians of Caprona is set in a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque Italy, but with added magicians; Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights starts off in an early 20th century Oxford, but with added dæmons. Elizabeth Knox’s Dreamhunter duet is set in a 1906 New Zealand, but with an added fantastical place where dreams can be caught.
The geographical similarities to the real world are obvious: the map of Coal Bay in the front of the book reveals it unmistakably as a version of New Zealand’s Golden Bay, complete with So Long Spit instead of Farewell Spit. Costume and custom underline its 1906 setting with stagecoaches, hand-cranked cameras, debutante balls, and somewhat quaint social propriety. Into this charmingly old-fashioned realistic world, Knox puts the Place, its uniqueness rendering any further name redundant. It is an alternative geography to the real world, but much larger on the inside than the space it takes up in the real-world landscape. Into this Place, some few people are able to go and catch dreams, which they can then take out into the real world and broadcast to others.
The first book, Dreamhunter, sets up the workings of the Place and the dream industry. We meet Laura and Rose, cousins and best friends, whose lives go in very different directions when it turns out that Laura can access the Place and become a dreamhunter, whereas Rose cannot and must continue her education and social schooling at Founderston Girls’ Academy. Laura also discovers an even stranger ability: she forms a figure out of sand and gives it life by means of a chant and an inscription. This sandman, Nown, helps her travel through the Place and, although initially a servant, soon becomes her most trusted friend. Dreamhunter also reveals that there is a dark side to the dream trade: horrific nightmares are secretly used in prisons to punish and torture convicts.
Dreamquake picks up the story when Laura has caught the worst of these nightmares and broadcasts it to an opera house full of patrons, overriding her aunt’s blissful dream performance. This causes not only outrage among the high-society clientele of the opera, but also a rift between our teenage heroine and her family. But Dreamquake is not merely a story about reconciling the family or about the morality of torturing prisoners with nightmares. Increasingly, this becomes a creation myth searching for the origin, cause and purpose of the magical Place itself. Laura feels a unique connection with the Place and begins to suspect that it is a living thing with a will of its own.
Throughout both books, Knox achieves a balance between the real and the fantastical in the characters of Laura and Rose. While Laura is clearly the protagonist, the reader finds an occasional grounding in the storyline of Rose. Like her, we do not have access to the Place, cannot bring a sandman to life, and are equally stuck in the real world with its practical concerns of school, friendships and family. And, like Rose, we have come to care desperately about Laura, even though we find her experiences at times difficult to comprehend. Among the serious and often distressing adventures of Laura and the sandman, Rose’s real-life exploits serve as light relief. She, too, has to face some unpleasant situations, such as unwanted physical advances by a young man. But her pragmatism and righteous indignation remind us that at least here we are in familiar, real-world territory. By contrast, Laura’s relationship with her hopeful suitor is, like the rest of Laura’s life, slightly unreal. She displays little of the insecurity, anxiety or giddiness of a teenager in love. Luckily, the suitor supplies enough youthful angst, resentment and emotional torment to balance things out a little and hold our interest in their romantic liaison.
Nown, the sandman, acts in many ways as an antagonist to Rose. Equally devoted to Laura, he is an entirely fantastical creation, and this does not sit well with the rational Rose. She is terrified of the monster, shocked that Laura talks to it and lets it carry her around, and nearly faints at the mere mention of it. She rejects any suggestion of it as anything other than a monster, and refuses to let Laura introduce her to it. Rose was apparently neither born to the fantastical, nor could she achieve it, and she is certainly not going to let it be thrust upon her. If she were a reader, Rose would not read fantasy novels. But her extreme reaction makes us realise how much better we have conversely adapted to the coexistence of reality and fantasy in Knox’s world.
The solution to the Place and its origin is quite clever, but it comes with a slight hiccup. In order to discuss this, I will have to give away an important twist in the plot, so be forewarned. The Place turns out to be a living creature just like the sandman (it is, in fact, a later incarnation of Nown), but on a vastly larger scale. But there is, unfortunately, an inconsistency. The spell that has brought the Place into being is, as it were, mis-spelled. We have been told the importance of each letter in the magical inscription several times throughout the Dreamhunter duet, and here there is unmistakably a letter missing. There is not much more to say about this except that in the excitement of the story’s climax we excuse this missing letter, knowing that the correct spell(ing) is a clever and workable device. There is also a time paradox, but this is far less problematic: we find out that the Place was created by Laura’s future son, now buried alive within the Place itself. The logic works within the fantastical framework of the story: the Place is created some years in the future, burying its creator. It then takes itself out of the normal time continuum and moves backwards in order to ask its previous creator, Laura, for help. Laura uses the inscription to destroy the Place and save her grown-up son at the same time. This makes for an odd and perhaps uncomfortable ending: teenage Laura is to live happily ever after with two versions of her son: one middle-aged, one yet to be born.
In Knox’s Dreamquake, the past is not merely a foreign country with a magical extra. It is an otherworld where the fantasy is literally written out of the story. What remains is still foreign but reassuring at the same time: instead of alternative places there are alternative pasts and futures — if they choose to do things differently.
Tatjana Schaefer teaches a children’s literature course at the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.