Monday, September 16, 2013

Damask, Wolf at the Door (2011)

J. Damask, Wolf at the Door. Lyrical Press, 2011. Pp. 125. ISBN 978-1-6165025-6-0. $7.99 pb/$4.14 e-book.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

Written by a native Singaporean, and set there, this novel is crafted with a deal of clear personal investment. Damask knows her city, and her customs, and celebrates them with a casual elegance in the details of her writing. She also invests a set of beliefs that will be alien to many of her readers with a sense of supernatural naturalism that makes the superstitions and rituals of the East seem very necessary, and furthermore, reciprocated, by the weird and wonderful beyond human scope.

Jan, a young mother, wife and member of a wolf pack (pure shape-shifter spirit beings—werewolves are considered the bastardisation of the shifting process and Shunned by all right-thinking Packs—this is not a teen werewolf tale), relates her life as she goes through a period of upheaval. We are privy to glimpses of her youth, as a bit of a supernatural vigilante with a group of three friends, her mentoring of younger supernaturals later on, and her current situation: the return of her sister Marianne to the family fold, bringing with her a new man Steve (also a Wolf). Following this reunion—not an entirely happy one—grim and dark events and emotions start to stir, threatening Jan’s comfortable life and even her family.

As a first-person narrator, the Jan character enables the integration by the most immediate and intimate means, and is a quick and effective hook for getting a reader on board. It allows for fast identification with an author’s aims and politics, and is a solid way of encouraging one to continue reading. Most ‘young adult’ speculative fiction books feature either direct first person, or a third person that is very involved with the main protagonist hero/ine. Damask’s vision is for a series set among the supernatural community she establishes in Singapore, and it is a full and bustling one. Funnily enough, she also allows for human influence; the younger members of her community utilising the internet and meeting at comic book stores and coffee shops in an open encouragement to the reader to identify with such interesting, pro-active people.

Somewhat inevitably, a ‘young adult’ novel will be judged somewhat on its themes; are they worthy and socially responsible? What ideas will be picked up from the book? It feels a little hypocritical, since ‘adult’ books are not so judged, but there is the idea that books for younger readers ‘should’ have positive learning to guide and help, especially if being read by young adults who are at a fragile stage of social integration and development. Perhaps this is because this book certainly does contain several quite obvious, wholesome themes that the supernatural sugar coating will help to swallow, and the fact that they form a huge part of the plot and the book’s structure means they call out to be examined.

Firstly, extremism, of any kind, is strongly abhorred, being referred to as frightening, wrong, fear and nausea-inducing and provoking the ostracising of the practitioner. Steve’s ideas of racial purity are condemned in no uncertain terms—not only as ethically unsound, but as having no sensible biological base: adaptation to one’s environment is seen as natural and indicative of survival, as opposed to an imposition of non-native elements that refuse to meet the native even halfway. The various supernatural groups, races and peoples are referred to with the mixed noun of ‘Myriad’ people, and they interact happily enough in Singapore’s social landscape. Jan’s group of school friends represent this in microcosm, being a Wolf, a Fox, a Bear and a Dragon. Clearly, it is good to accept and adapt and live alongside different peoples. Racism: it is bad news, kids. Following from this, there is a clear line drawn between healthy, balanced Jan and fragile Marianne, who is the figure who stands for the pain and self-destructiveness of hate, disappointment and negativity. Marianne is an emotional wreck that results from such habits: Steve is the result of years of self-delusional programming. Neither comes out of it well. Whereas the troubled souls among Jan’s old school friends and college mentees whom she and the community attempt to help have better prospects for having tried to change the patterns of their thinking and move on. The message is clear: it is possible to set these things aside, to change, but it requires effort and bravery. However, you will be better for it. Those who remained stuck in it are brutally punished by the results of their self-limiting actions.

There is a definite sense of the respect for traditions as offering a sense of continuance and history, providing roots and meanings. Jan is operating within the laws of her societies; human laws and supernatural lores. She knows her boundaries, and respects them as the way to keep peace and provide for the greater community. In agreement with this, there is respecting one’s elders. Jan has tremendous love and respect for her parents and the experience of older practitioners around her. But the respect goes both ways: wisdom of age should understand the inventiveness and inquisitiveness of youth. When parental figures fail, it is a damaging event. One of Jan’s mentees has an abusive mother, and Jan supports her in learning that it is OK to move away from such behaviour, and that it is not a personal failure to do so. This is not blind obedience, but the development of an ideal give-and-take situation with one’s progenitors. From this comes the pro-personal importance of grounding oneself, of finding one’s strengths and then making them work for one.

There is much value laid on staying loyal to friends and family. Jan’s mentoring and the adventures she had with childhood friends have given her a solid sense of the importance of maintaining and nurturing positive influences in her life. Jan’s husband is a marvel of a person (perhaps only found in the wish fulfilment of fiction!), being supportive, respectful of her need for space, and a solid provider. The book is heavily larded with references to familial activity, and the importance of belonging. The Pack does this, the Pack thinks that… Pack—Family—is praised as a supportive and sustaining unit. But, as in the mentee’s case, and in the unreliable home life of Jan’s Dragon friend Kiat, ‘bad’ familial influence is to be challenged and if necessary changed to a Family of one’s choosing that is better for one’s care and development.

Perhaps due to cultural differences, but these glowingly positive tropes seem a little claustrophobic and old-fashioned at times to this Western reader. In the West, the relationship to the family and to society is considerably more predicated on the self as the primary unit. We are more suspicious of collective effort—as the lengthy Cold War goes to show. The affirmation of Family through the narrative’s Pack felt almost naive in places. The fantasy of the supernatural was more believable in the somewhat flooded current era of mainstream, popular speculative fictions, than the ‘fantasy’ of this amazing family Jan has to rely on. Or just possibly Damask was being very successful in using her own cultural foundations to present the close-knit pack mentality of Wolf beings.

There were, however, some problems with the text. It was very repetitive. There were a lot of returns to Jan’s ‘Ancestral Forest’, where she recharges her atavistic batteries (presumably in a trance-state or while she dreams). This is praised as a primal place to return to in spirit to chew over the issues that are concerning her in a safe place. But the problem here was not so much a genuine exploration of the events, as a repeat of ‘this is our sacred place, this is where I feel totally Wolf—rrr’ again and again. And again and again, passages coming back, re-affirming the Wolf take on things—‘danger, smell, family, rrr’—that kept on producing increasingly annoying splurges of deja-vu. A little less character-loading and a bit more narrative fluidity would have definitely helped.

The second big problem I had was with the structure; it was messy. This felt like two books trying to happen, colliding, and neither coming out the winner. Jan struggles through the middle of it, having a very restrained angst-fest of it, as her unease over her sister’s choice of mate grows, since the space that the repetition and flashbacks took up did not allow her character much space to make positive, decisive action in the now. The pace did not pick up until very close to the end; a dénouement that I was thankful for, as it was all starting to read a little too much like a mood piece. And here, I mean a mood of drawn-out disgruntlement/anxiety that carries little or no narrative weight: the ‘oh, god’ cliché of ‘young adult’ fictions. Flipping through the ‘young adult’ dramas available on the shelves and on TV shows a heavy bias towards shiny young things having ‘relationship problems’ and ‘social issues’ and just plain ‘issues.’ Unfortunately, this means that possible open media forums for opening up and debunking the angst from young adult emotional landscapes have been cheapened by commoditisation. It’s that very commoditisation I was starting to worry about here, until at last! Some action; a fight in the woods and some blood on the floor. The supernatural was developed in folklore to be a warning, a monstrous existence to be abhorred (map your social discriminatory model of choice in here). But it has become, alas, something to be glitzed for ‘young adult’ fictions. However worthy Damask’s themes are, Jan’s character has little time to really be stretched into someone active and useful.

The first of the two books seemed to be Jan’s memories of her youth and the hints of some crazy, amazing adventures she got up to as a self-styled Gang of Four with her three shape-shifting friends. Sounding a varied, interesting and pretty awesome unit, they launched themselves into doing battle against ghosts, ancient spirits and bogey men in fights that sounded as if they would be fantastic filmic fodder; four-star SFX, the works. Alongside this, Jan recalls a midpoint between her own youth and her current age. I estimate this at around mid-30s. By no means ‘past it’, but Jan makes references to ‘getting too old for this’, and because she has children the implication is of the sensible, married woman. Her kids are still primary-school age and she is only four years older than her sister, a woman somewhere in her mid to late 20s. However, since anyone above 30 probably seems positively antique to ‘young adults’, the choice of such for heroine is a brave one, but explains the ‘settled’ themes and philosophies espoused above. Having done the wild thing, Jan is now ‘respectable.’ This older-youth period sees Jan recalling how she mentored some younger members of the supernatural community. Her own career (apparently she was a teacher) is only very, very lightly touched on, and this mentor role is given prominence. The second book is the older, family Jan reuniting with Marianne and getting seriously bad vibes off her boyfriend, and the trouble that arises from his presence.

As a result we have flashbacks slopping about the place, and confusingly the youth-Jan’s and older-youth Jan’s adventures are both referred to simply as ‘The Past’. Things remembered became mixed, temporally, with the ‘current’ situation of older-Jan’s life, and so the whole really needed more tightening up. Or additional writing and splitting into two books. What would be so wrong having a middle-youth Jan as a teacher, mentoring her troubled teens, recalling her own youth and giving space to what sound some pretty fab antics from that era, in a book of her own? Then older-Jan could have done more than have ‘a bad feeling about this’ until her friends start getting targeted and she is forced into an animal response; a response she seems to have been holding back throughout, despite being so (repeatedly, vocally) proud of her heritage? If the point is to show ‘young adults’ that barrelling in isn’t always the best way, and one should gather data and make consideration, fine, but that’s not even that obvious, either. Jan has the mopes for most of the book until she is forced by a great extremity to go bad-ass vengeful mother.

Damask’s vision of Singaporean supernatural life is vivid, colourful, affectionate and obviously carefully mapped. Her heroine is moral, strong, and a role-model. It’s just a shame that her narrative is loose and the emotional landscape acts as a break on her narrative pace.

Wolf at the Door and the sequel Obsidian Moon, Obsidian Eye are available from Lyrical Press.

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