Friday, 6 April 2012

Review - Lud-in-the-Mist

How has it taken me so long to write this post? I don't know. I could probably blame essay madness: currently the entire rational part of my brain is busy trying to prove that the cure for vampirism in ladies is marriage and a good bit of pregnancy (you think I'm joking, don't you? I'm not joking), and I need to use all of the rest of my mental powers just to perform basic tasks like eating and watching 4OD.

Also, in the last week I've resigned my Litro internship (leaving behind me a blog about endings, a blog about recreational drugs and a blog about my lizard Watson) and started one at the British Museum Press, which is extremely interesting but also quite time consuming.

But anyway - no excuses, really. Life happened, I read Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, and then it refused to magically write a review about itself. I think that was very unfair of it. I'm going to have to dock it half a star for being so lazy and just write my own.

First impressions first: I violently hate my edition's cover. I hate it so much. By some trick of the mind, whenever I look at it from far away, or upside down, or just without paying much attention, all I can see is a squashed sad panda, decorated with ribbons. I don't know who commissioned that excrescence of a drawing, but they should take mandatory retirement, effective immediately. Luckily, I didn't choose the book because of its cover, otherwise I'd never have read it.

Actually, I have to thank Neil Gaiman for leading me to this book. It featured on a list he made of his top ten books of all time (which now, of course, I can't find). I was attracted by the title (Lud-in-the-Mist. What is it? Who is it? Why does it sound so interesting?), but mainly by Neil Gaiman, who not only can do no wrong as far as books are concerned (I'll leave the life choices out of it), but also used to hang around with Diana Wynne Jones, who is my Number One Top Writer Person Ever. So I had to give Lud-in-the-Mist a try.

Now, don't worry if you don't know who Hope Mirrlees is. I'd never heard of her either - until I saw the Gaiman list, after which point she began to turn up everywhere. She was born in 1887, went to Cambridge, became friends with a lot of modernist writers (she actually appears fleetingly in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as well as, more recently, The Children's Book) and wrote three books in the 1920s, the most famous of which was Lud-in-the-Mist.

So that's Hope Mirrlees.

On to Lud-in-the-Mist itself. It's all about a town of 'ordinary' people who live on the borders of Fairyland, but never visit because they're too afraid of what they might find - until one guy decides to go. Sound familiar? If you've ever read Neil Gaiman's Stardust, you'll know what I'm talking about. The two books share not just a basic scenario but a tone - sort of old-world-with-a-wink, slightly naughty and very clever. I'm not suggesting that Gaiman's stealing at all, just that he's obviously hugely indebted to Mirrlees. Now that I've read Lud-in-the-Mist I realise that Stardust is essentially a loving homage to a book that's influenced his imagination enormously.

As well as getting backwards influence from Gaiman, Lud-in-the-Mist reminded me enormously of Lord of the Rings - or at least the parts of it that are set in the Shire. If I had to describe Lud-in-the-Mist in four words, those words would be 'Hobbity, with a bite'. It's all very charming and mannered - the inhabitants of Lud-in-the-Mist (it's the name of the town as well as the book) go gallivanting about hunting moths and eating cheese like happy little hobbits, but underneath they're all a bit mean and spiteful and bad. I'm not sure there was a character that I actually liked - which is unusual, since I liked the book itself very much. It has a strong flavour of what would happen if Tolkien had a love child with Christina Rossetti: fairy-tale jollity but with a strong spike of nastiness behind it. At times it's actually down-and-out creepy, all the more so because of how simply the creep presented. People just turn around and casually say things like 'Excuse me, sir, you're going to die soon', or 'Do the dead bleed?' and then you get heart palpitations and have to take a reading break.

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?
Unusually for me, because I think that a lot of influence doesn't much matter, I'd say that if you haven't read Rossetti's Goblin Market you're really going to miss a lot of what Mirrlees is doing. (Side note: if you haven't read Goblin Market, you've got to. That's an order. It's an amazing poem and basically a top-notch fantasy story in and of itself).

The plot of Lud-in-the-Mist revolves around the illegal import of fairy fruit into Lud - if you know your Rossetti, you'll understand what a bad thing that's considered to be. The fruit, like Rossetti's goblin fruit, makes its human eater go mad with longing for Fairyland - which is against the law, since, after a revolution against Fairy, the inhabitants of Lud are supposed to be keeping things strictly anti-magical temptation.

As in all the best fantasy, Mirrlees is intensely logical when it comes to the details of her made-up world, and the result is that you're absolutely sold on the factuality of the fiction she's created. She's given Lud a history, economy and mythology so close - and yet so far - from turn-of-the-century rural England that it's like reading a particularly clever spot-the-difference picture. As a physical place, Lud feels entirely comfortable and relatable - and then Mirrlees pulls the rug out from under your feet with a single detail that makes you realise how utterly alien Lud is to your own experience. At one point, for example, she has a character look out over the countryside and see its old oak trees, thick hedgerows, gentle rivers and blue cows.

Yes, blue cows. Because Lud is next to Fairyland, and in Fairyland all the cows are blue, and over hundreds and hundreds of years there's been quite a lot of interbreeding of livestock - the result being blue cows in Lud. Even though everything from Fairyland is taboo in modern Lud, fairy influences have crept into its everyday life- people swear with fairy swearwords, for example, and sing fairy folksongs, without really being aware of what they're doing. It's all so brilliantly imagined and beautifully described (it looked absolutely lovely in my head) that the world of Lud jumps into life right off the page at you and hangs around in your head long after you've finished reading.

I do think the real virtue of Lud-in-the-Mist is Mirrlees's imagination. It's got a sweet but slightly inconsequential plot that's somewhat oddly resolved, and it does sometimes suffer from over-quaintness of metaphor. But her idea is so bloody great that I forgive her all of her small failures of execution. It's absolutely outstanding fantasy, and it deserves to be on top ten lists everywhere.

You know I liked a book if I recommend it to people, and so far I've told five friends about Lud-in-the-Mist and successfully lent it to one. Which I'm now regretting, because I want it back. It's that rare mix of incredibly comfortable and oddly upsetting, and I think I need to read it again.

Or maybe twice more.

4 stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment