Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan

Margo Lanagan’s Red Spikes is a fantastic book on so many levels with its use of language and also revisiting and reshaping our expectations of the fantastic. At some many levels, this collection reminded me of Alan Garner and his use of language in evoking the landscape in its full richness. Instead of necessarily evoking a sense of place, Lanagan evokes the fantastic itself.

In ‘A Good Heart’, she tells a story of a boy who will not get to be with the girl whom he loves yet he stands by her side. Lanagan uses dialect to give a rich insight into a take on the noble knight, forsaking his happiness temporarily for another’s. This choice of standing up for what is good even if the outcome is not what you desire is evoked in ‘Hero Vale’ where our protagonist learns from a Wood between the Worlds (which the afterword suggests is influenced by the Wood in Lewis’s Magician’s Nephew) to stand up to a bully, even though he gets laid out flat. Both voices are the catalyst for change through their own actions. Echoing the notion of the noble knight, like Lancelot, Margo Lanagan makes their actions relevant and plausible through their very fallibility and thus they become more real and rounded.

‘Daughter of the Clay’ does this with fantastic aplomb when the clay version of a baby realises that its parents really are not its parents and travels back to fairy to release the child at its own expense of unbecoming.  Moving from that feeling of what if these aren’t my real parents, the stroy develops with a voice that makes you pity the child who is relinquishing its own humanity to become part of the clay, part of nothing, yet who becomes greater for so doing. This is echoed in ‘Over Hell, Under Heaven’ where the demons who are moving the soul back to Hell complete their job with a very Catholic vision. Tabitha, one of the party, decides to investigate the Outside and becomes lost in the uncertainty of life.

There is a strong vein of Catholicism in the book, coming from Lanagan’s childhood and she undermines the certainties preached. Even the demons cannot stand the pure certainties whch they maintain and need the uncertainty to grow. In ‘Monkey’s Paternoster’, the awaited new head monkey is always referred to as He not he, and the title Paternoster translates to “Our Father”. Is God awaited or waiting to be subverted?

Red Spikes doesn’t preach but it explores the nature of growing up from a variety of perspectives. This is a strange little collection that enjoys itself and its nature and a must read.

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