Saturday, September 08, 2012

Anderson, Beloved Evangeline (2012)

W.C. Anderson, Beloved Evangeline. Independent, 2012. Pp. 349. ASIN B006SB026W. $0.99.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

The story begins in prologue. Within an institution, a girl, spurred on by a dandified figure no one else can see, is about to jump through a window. A catchy opener, more so because it is first-person told. After this subtle narrative throat-clearing, flashback to how Evangeline managed to get into this mess. To begin with, she sounds like a deeply depressed, possibly bipolar character, with high and low mood swings and a strong sense of self-loathing. What a cutie. Stick with me, it gets better, because as the story unfolds, a suspicion flowers—not so much a genuinely mentally unstable character, as a person who has consciously decided to be alone. Bad things happen to those she cares about: boyfriend suicide, maternal drama, and she has decided on a self-imposed social exile: lurking at home when not keeping a low profile in a junior statistician’s job in a non-specified office in the city. Question: is this a moody young adult or the genuinely jinxed?

The plot starts off with introduction: Evangeline is a loner, the ‘strange’ one at the office, yet we are with her (first person is great for reader sympathy)—so when she describes the office fixations of pop music, reality shows and malicious gossip—we are invited sympathetically to feel kooky, too. We feel, like her, that her colleagues are the strange, shallow ones. A near-rape by the office stud at a party only confirms it; she is less concerned about the attack than others thinking her a slut. We’re with the deep and troubled character, man. Even her name is significant; always used in the full, it has an old-fashioned timbre. And it has irony, given her fears, meaning “good news.”

Yet this loner has friends—a few, terribly loyal friends, who stick by her. No, wait, she has regular coffees and lunches with them, and there’s sexual tension frizzling in the air with one of them—tangible as ozone. But she ignores it, apparently unable to feel it directed to her, because she’s the loner, right? And a loner, maybe, but she seems to have a minor footwear fetish: long boots, high heels, and the subtle, tasteful outfits she describes all add up, we are allowed to assume, to an eye-catching character. The epithet of ‘tomboy’ used frequently translating in these conditions as cute-but-awkward. (Like the final reveal in teenager rom-coms, where the ‘plain’ girl of the class suddenly turns into a stunner with a good frock and make-up). So she’s ‘differently’ attractive, and will certainly gain attention over her mukluks. Surely genuine social misfits and psychologically wobbly people do not pay attention to this kind of detail? And now the weird sets in; strange happenings, old memories surfacing, and a grandfather she didn’t know existed emerge to draw Evangeline into a murky world of mystery and danger to discover just who she really is.

Instead of the heavy layering of psychological drama, the book turns now into a portrait of the beginnings of a heroine as potentially super-cool as Buffy; with the looks and the smart mouth (she defends small children from a particularly unpleasant neighbour who picks on them), and the fashion (did anyone else note that Buffy seemed to have a pretty bottomless wardrobe?). There is also a hefty dose of Twilight’s Bella: the tomboyish, somewhat angsty ‘loner’ with a few unfashionable but loyal friends. What saves our heroine from being just too sickeningly angsty-awesome is that Evangeline as a character seems genuinely clueless as she is forced to open up due to increasingly strange events in her life, and she notes the thawing process with surprise. The apparent bumbling from one event to the next, clumsily following ‘clues’ and grasping onto a chance to make a difference in her life are traits pretty much everyone can relate to. Life is not a series of adventures, tallying together neatly and making connective sense. Most of the time, we are like Evangeline: falling in and out of things and making the best of it. As a first book to introduce a new type of supernatural heroine, this is the story about the mistakes, the baby-steps, the lessons learned, and it endears Evangeline to us as a relatable character. When a courtly old gent comes calling it is the start of a series of ‘quests’ to determine her eligibility for some great destiny inherited from her mother’s side of the family. Having done these three, she will need to unlock the secret of the old graveyard she hung out in as a kid to get her first full taste of the powers she is a part of. Added to this, a deranged serial killer is on the loose, and Evangeline will end up facing the creepy killer in a showdown for her life.

Evangeline will have to man up and face the fact that either a) she is seriously disturbed and imagining it all or b) that she has a heritage of supernatural weirdness, which she has to master as something nasty in the darkness is reaching out for her. Fascinated with ghosts as a child, she did all she could to find proof of the weird to show that her (currently institutionalised) mother was not mad. Coincidentally, this would only have shown that her mother was a cold-blooded killer and deserving of prison instead. But Evangeline was convinced that clearing the sanity of the woman she denied as a child will ease the greater burden of her guilt. The fact that a very small child’s evidence as a witness in a case of serial murders would be questionable does not enter into Evangeline’s thoughts. That her mother might well have had dealings with witchy forces, and even been a natural white witch, disposing of ‘bad’ people, is dripped in piecemeal through a series of dreaming flashbacks; so even their veracity is doubtful.

Tantalisingly, for the greater part of the book there is strong potential for all this to be in Evangeline’s head, ravings we share as reality as she sees it. Expressing her doubts, but less and less, and taking to her quests with increasing enthusiasm, Evangeline comes across as a heroically tragic figure desperately trying to find a reason for her life. This is a primary underlying theme, and is found widely in books in a similar vein. Quests and battles are metaphors for the self striving to find its place, to understand its part in life and the world. That such books are eaten up by a predominantly teenage and young adult audience is indicative of the preoccupations of this age group moving out of childhood into adulthood. Monsters are often regarded as the manifestation of perils and fears associated with the changes and challenges of this period of life, as well as wider social taboos and handing-down of moral behaviours to the next generation (the monsters being the things to avoid and fear in the unsociable Id). Questing books map psychological changes and development of the Ego. Evangeline is a figure for this; mentioning herself how surprising it is how people’s reactions to her change as her quests start to bring her disposition into a more sociable mould. Children survive by running from danger and trouble. It is the adult responsibility to face it, and bear their part in protection of the wider group by doing so.

We are drawn into Evangeline’s deeds, but never so far as to escape the fact that she and we are separate. First person narrative is an intimate voice to work with, as is the clever use of part-feeding information as the narrative progresses to build more of a background context. Anderson also maintains the very modern habit in her character of protracted soul-searching (the vicarious emptying of a reader’s emotions into the thought processes of the character), and it is the dramatic immolation of such heroines that could account for their popularity in modern fantasy. Audience-pleasing, ‘normal’ (but, naturally, empowered) characters fight, mourn, lose, love, enrage and suffer again and again in books and TV shows, but return for more next time. (The balance to this perhaps being the Buffy character Xander, the completely non-supernatural character who actually saved the world by reaching out to his devastated friend, a witch who was about blow the planet to heck).

So lightness of touch is vital to the success of stories like this one; too much heaviness and it all becomes a little too serious—the sacrificial heroine becomes the actual, unapproachable Ideal—and Anderson delivers very competently. Exciting episodes of action are colourful and pacey. Slower-moving moments in between, where time is required to pass to move on to specific dates, is bounced along by Evangeline’s more protracted soul-examining: action and thought, both covered, check. If the writing of some of the fight scenes is a bit clunky, and the ‘time passes’ sections could do with a little trimming, they are completely forgivable as minor sins. The pattern is an episodic, but deeply ‘visual’ approach once it kicks up a gear for the skirmishing. Wisely, Anderson allows it to fall into a more sedate tone once these are over so it does not become over-frothed with nowhere to go. It was, in fact, clear enough to conceptualise a filmic depiction of events, and as a TV option, this would be a very easily transferable story.

So it’s easy reading; there’s nothing too demanding in here. There is nothing that would have to send one running to supernatural or statistical reference sections to made crucial sense of the plot. Neither—although they represent the two halves of Evangeline’s life—are encountered in such complexity that the narrative’s concurrent information and descriptions are not enough to keep the plot afloat. Some things are not explained; what was the invisible creature she had to battle for the necklace? What was the translation of the inscription in the garden on her first quest? But small details like this pale against the heroine’s reaction and learning process. Exploring through the personal puts Beloved firmly the current milieu for heroine-led paranormal adventures. Why heroines? Take your pick of reasons. Women are meant to be the more vulnerable of the sexes in traditional narratives, but modern readers, viewers and gamers have clicked closely with the strong depiction. There is still the exciting outsider quality; something a little dangerous and titillating about a pretty girl able to fight and think her way in and out of scrapes. And outsiders have for a long time been considered the best hero material. Despite their popularity for daring deeds, from ancient Greece to comic books, heroes rarely have settled, successful home lives, are constantly being persecuted or hunted, battling or questing off in the wilderness. A true hero is the ultimate scapegoat: facing the greatest danger so that the rest of us don’t have to. The feisty heroine has become almost as much a protected species of character archetype as her delicate, fêted predecessors in traditional story-telling, where women soothed, cared, loved and picturesquely lost. As such they are rapidly becoming less figures of female empowerment, and crystallising into specialised female forms of an ‘allowed’ type. There’s a thesis in there, but not at this time.

This is not intended as a stand-alone book. We can expect at least a trilogy, according to the advertising. A bunch of obvious lose ends are left dangling for the reader to await further developments. What was the point of the first and third quests? Was the first to reassure her she’s on the right track and the last to teach her about how she is instinctively equipped to battle eerie beings; the necklace she found never being mentioned again? Who is the vampiric gentleman who knew her mother and we only properly met in the final battle of the book? And what of the forces she has been somewhat the plaything of as she tottered through their initiations? Her lover seems to have had closer contact with them, as at the end he is advised by person unknown to go to a secret location to learn how to survive her (she really is bad juju to her intimates). Furthermore, it is his leaving note explaining this that tells her she has a first mission to go on, but a mission for whom? Apparently Evangeline is a new weapon to be lined up and fired at trouble spots.

Kick-ass heroines in a supernatural context are hot property right now and this lass is bang-on trend. Her special power is a neat new twist. Evangeline is not a vampire, a werewolf, or obviously witchy. Instead she has an ‘affinity’ with death; her most profound initiation quest being a near-death poisoning that sent her on a soul-quest into the Underworld, where she is touched by death itself. Now she apparently cannot die, heals fast, and has innate battle skills she has yet to find the full potential of. Super-powered, but not just able to pull off any old coup, she makes a flawed and worried heroine.

The book is easy enough for holiday reading and I can see it acquiring keen fans that will eat up the books one after another. This is not deep writing or reading; it does not feel as if there is a huge amount of specialised knowledge behind it, but it doesn’t matter, and it’s not the point of the genre. Although billed as ‘dark urban fantasy,’ this is most likely due to the angst factor. Female heroes may be physically adventurous, but they are also coming from a legacy of femininity equating with emotional landscape. Male heroes don’t need to over-think; men are points of action. But women are the thinking, feeling units in story telling. Action heroines are a prey to deep thoughts, worry and self-flagellation. In fact, the ‘angsty’ moments could have been thinned from the book and the heroine relieved of some of the overpowering self-loathing and guilt, and the story would have suffered not a jot. It is most likely intended for more of a remarkable rise from zero to hero, from plain to spicy. But Evangeline’s story is told with enough vim and verve, her sense of humour is sassy enough for her to have shown a more balanced perspective and still been a good read. ‘Dark fantasy’ has become the label for such over-emoting, and while it has its following in the young adult audience these books are aimed for, there is little that is genuinely dark here. You know Evangeline will pull it out of the hat, that something awesome will be revealed; that’s the point of it all. It’s a small shame that Anderson seems to feel that only by topping up the suffering quotient periodically will her character retain credibility. There’s a very likeable, quirky, occasionally grizzling heroine in there, fighting to get out.

So long as Evangeline isn’t plunged into the deepest despair, this promises to be a solid and entertaining series, based on a very enjoyable first instalment.

Buy this item from
Buy this item from

No comments: