by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Books”

Re-reading Part Two: Charlaine Harris

Posted 24 February 2010 in by Catriona

(Part One of this extremely intermittent series, in which I am annoyed by David Eddings, is here.)

Whenever you Google “literary fiction versus genre fiction,” as I’m sure we’ve all done at some point or another, you find people defining literary fiction as “character-driven” and genre fiction as “plot driven.”

Like most statements predicated on the construction of monolithic categories, this is more than a little problematic. And if you want to see genre fiction that is as character driven as it is plot driven, try Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard Mysteries.

Oh, sure: they’re murder mysteries, and I’d be pretty disappointed if we didn’t, at the end of the day, find out whodunit. But these five books are as much about the slow warming of Lily as they are about the murders.

Lily, you see, has become nothing but the sum of what happened to her. Abducted, raped, mutilated, and subjected to prolonged media exposure, she’s trapped by her own victimisation. When people say to someone, “Well, it could have been worse,” their eyes slide over Lily and away again: she’s the worse that could have happened.

So she leaves. She leaves her small home town, her job, her family, and she moves from small town to small town in the southern states of the U.S., always leaving when her past becomes known—until she reaches Shakespeare, Arkansas, a town founded by a home-sick, literature-loving Englishman, and which she picked off the map because her own name is Bard.

Here she chooses to stay when her past is revealed, when her scars are (quite literally) revealed. Here she works on her body-building and her karate, so that, as she says to a small girl who praises her strength, no one bothers her now. From here she can even go back to her home town to act as maid of honour for her sister and cope with the anxiety and distress her presence always causes her loving family.

I always want to know whodunit.

But with the Lily Bard Mysteries, I’m far more concerned with watching Lily move away from her self-defensive, self-protective pose, a pose marked by an extreme lack of affect, to one that’s warmer, more engaged, more open—all the while remaining a woman plagued by bad dreams, a woman who walks and walks on nights when she can’t sleep, a woman who can’t brook any form of restraint for reasons so horrific that we don’t want to think about them.

Or how about the Harper Connelly Mysteries? Unlike the Lily Bard Mysteries, these have the supernatural element for which Harris is probably best known in the wake of True Blood.

But something about Harper breaks my heart. Struck by lightning at age fifteen, Harper can now find dead bodies, tracking them by a buzzing sense that grows more intense the fresher the body is. The only one she can’t find is her sister Cameron, who disappeared aged eighteen somewhere between her school and the family’s trailer in Texarkana.

Like Lily, Harper is damaged, but for different reasons. Harper’s is a riches-to-rags story: lawyer parents who become enamoured of the lifestyles and vices of the people they represented, and who shed each other on the way from white collar to blue collar and below. Ultimately, Harper’s mother marries a man with two children of his own and they have two more children: until Cameron disappears, the older children work to care for the babies and prevent Child Services from finding out what’s happening in the Texarkana trailer.

Part of the damage to Harper comes from that: any teenager would carry scars if their mother had tried to sell their virginity for drugs.

Part of it comes from the lightning strike. Harper was kept alive by her stepbrother Tolliver, who performed CPR until the ambulance arrives. The lightning strike leaves her with a series of weaknesses and symptoms rejected by the general medical community, who maintain that there are no long-term effects to a lightning strike, despite the weakness of Harper’s right leg, the shaking in her right hand, the severe headaches. It also leaves her with an explicable fear of natural disasters: when Tolliver asks what the chances are of lightning striking twice, she merely asks what the chances were of it striking once. And it leaves her with a more generalised fear of the unknown and unexpected, a tendency to panic when faced with a disruption to her usual pattern.

And part of it comes from her work. When she finds a body, Harper can also see how they died—just a brief flash of their last moments from their perspective. The work is draining. If she weren’t accompanied by her manager and stepbrother Tolliver, she wouldn’t be able to accomplish it.

So they travel constantly, from job to job. Most of their work is in small towns in the southern states, towns that are usually fundamentalist communities. Most people with whom they deal believe they are con men. Some think they are genuinely evil. Harper is threatened, sometimes struck, shot at, and on one occasion actually stoned.

Is it any wonder she breaks my heart a little?

Even Sookie Stackhouse, from the comparatively light-hearted Southern Vampire series, is a damaged heroine, abused by her great-uncle as a child and so limited by her uncontrollable telepathy that the townsfolk assume she is insane or developmentally delayed. Sookie doesn’t fall into sexual relationships with vampires because it’s fashionable (though it is) or because they’re sexy (though they are): she does it because she can’t read their minds. They’re about the only creatures with whom she can enjoy a normal relationship.

And those vampires!

Vampires in Harris’s world are as powerful and potent as they are in most vampire fiction. (Much more so, in fact, than in the television adaptation where Eddie found, heartbreakingly, that he wasn’t any more successful at picking up men as a vampire than he had been as a man). Indeed, their blood is a literal drug, with a staggering street value, leaving them as vulnerable to “drainers” as they are to the fundamentalist, vampire-hating Fellowship of the Sun.

But vampires in Harris’s world are also a bit naff. They run clubs called things like Fangtasia (just as the werewolves congregate in a pub called Hair of the Dog), where the sell such merchandise as T-shirts emblazoned with blood-dripping fangs or “Hunks of Fangtasia” calendars. They hang out in New Orleans, amusing the tourists. In short, they both exploit and revel in every stereotype about vampirism that humans can imagine—all the while being entirely dangerous and not at all human.

Am I arguing that Harris is flawless? Of course not. Her continuity errors, for example, are myriad: minor characters flip from one side of the family to the other, or shift names, or forget key plot points between one book and another. (Or, in one case, forget what kind of animal they shift into.)

But I am arguing that she’s not only enormous fun, she’s a writer who specialises in making damaged characters well-rounded and engaging; who offers a detailed revisioning of small-town life in the southern U.S.; and who recognises that vampires are both appealing and naff.

What’s not to like?

Books In Their Natural Environment, Part Three

Posted 12 February 2010 in by Catriona

Let Me Tell You How Much I've Enjoyed The Gallagher Girls

Posted 1 February 2010 in by Catriona

I know you’re dying to hear all about it.

Because you know me, right? (And if not, if you’re new to the blog, hi!) You know there’s nothing I love more than a good girls’ school story. Remember how excited I was when I discovered there was such a thing as vampire boarding-school stories?

This is like that time, only with spies.

The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies is ensconced behind high stone walls, bears all the hallmarks of a posh private (or public, depending on where you’re reading this) school, even attracts the scorn of the town’s residents, who have perfected what the girls call the “Gallagher Glare” whenever they spot a student in the town.

But it’s a school for spies.

And it’s more than that: it’s a school for the daughters of American spies (and one girl whose parents are MI6, brought in at the discretion of the new headmistress). Some of the girls, the ones whose parents aren’t spies, have been brought in because of exceptionally high test scores, so, as far as their parents are concerned, they really do just attend a school for exceptionally bright students. But they’re training all the while for a future career in either the CIA or some other initialism-heavy organisation.

When I first thought about writing a piece on these books, I was thinking to myself, “It would be so easy to write one of those snippet reviews you find in the back of women’s mags. You’d just write, ‘Harry Potter meets Alias‘ and you’d be done.”

To some extent, that reading still feels accurate to me. These books are like Alias: the insane gadgets, the almost superhuman powers of the spies, the frenetic excitement of the job. And they are like Harry Potter, and not just because they’re set in a boarding school: there’s a point in the series when the focal character Cammie Morgan goes to CIA headquarters with her mother for a debriefing, and accesses the building through a hidden elevator in a department-store changing room. There are shades there, to me, of the way Harry Potter’s world existed alongside, beneath, above, or around our own, but never quite overlapped.

That delights me.

I don’t want spies to be sitting in rooms peering at computer monitors. I want them to be rappelling down the sides of buildings and if, like Michelle Yeoh, they can do it in high heels, so much the better.

Even the titles of the books delight me: I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have To Kill You; Cross My Heart and Hope To Spy; and Don’t Judge A Girl By Her Cover. (Apparently, the fourth one will be Only the Good Spy Young.)

Oh, don’t look at me like that: you know I love a bad pun from the time I wrote that blog post on Wuthering High (and its sequels, The Scarlet Letterman and Moby Clique).

But I’m not actually here to talk about puns. I want to mention instead the complex and fascinating way that these books negotiate interpersonal relationships.

The books are, according to Amazon.com’s method of categorisation, aimed at nine- to twelve-year-old readers, and that feels about right: there’s no sex, of course (unlike the Vampire Academy books, which are designed for older readers) and precious little kissing. They’re also distinctly heternormative: there’s no indication that any of the girls are attracted to other girls.

That’s not unusual for mainstream books in the 9-12 age range, of course.

But it’s also a stance that’s somewhat problematised by the books’ genre. Girls’ school stories don’t seem to be able to just adopt an unproblematic heternormative stance. Stories from the original burgeoning of the genre (from around the 1920s to roughly the 1950s) are frequently subjected to a kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink re-reading that draws on any hint of suggestiveness in the stories—I’ve done this myself, of course.

Sometimes the stories themselves are suggestive, as in the case of one I read that was a long moral tale arguing against passionate friendships with someone of your own gender: I wish I could remember the title of that one.

Perhaps that explains why more modern variants on the girls’ school stories foreground the heterosexuality of the pupils? In the Trebizon stories, for example, the girls are all paired off with their equivalent in the boys’ boarding school down the road, and the teachers encourage them to socialise together.

That would never happen at Malory Towers.

What happens in the Gallagher Girls series, though, is that these girls, who have been ensconced in a girls’ boarding school for the final seven years of their schooling, have absolutely no idea how to relate to the opposite sex.

None at all.

How would they? The only members of the opposite sex they’ve met since they were twelve—really, around the time you really start noticing other people as sexually or proto-sexually attractive—have been their teachers.

Most of them don’t even have a parental relationship as a model, because their parents are, by and large, spies out in the field. They don’t head home to home-cooked meals, family conversation, trips out to the zoo or shopping expeditions—they spend Christmas helping their parents trail arms dealers on the other side of the world.

Take the heroine Cammie, for example. She doesn’t even know how her parents met: it’s classified. So when she does meet a boy, she has no idea how to get to know him, except to treat it as a mission: she constructs an elaborate legend, presenting herself as a home-schooled, highly religious girl with a cat called Suzie, and she sneaks out of the school every chance she gets to meet this new boy.

It’s more complicated for Cammie, of course, because she’s what’s known as a “pavement artist”: her job is to trail suspects invisibly, or as near to invisibly as she can manage. And she’s good, too, but once she becomes aware of boys, she becomes rather more ambivalent: when a cute boy tells her he’d never have noticed her, she knows it’s a compliment, and part of her takes it that way, but part of her is hurt, too.

Cammie’s determination to pursue a boy who can’t know the truth about her school terrifies the teachers, who go so far, in a later book, as to arrange an exchange programme so the students can interact regularly with boys their own age.

Sure, much of what I like in these books comes down to the pavement-artist heroine, attractive but untrustworthy hero, the spy gadgets, the rappelling, and the occasional Code Red that locks the school down when out-of-the-loop parents drop by unannounced.

But I like, too, the way in which the books recognise that interpersonal relationships are complicated even if you do have a camera in your wrist watch and comms in your fake crucifix.

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