The view from my reading pile.

Desideria, by Nicole Kornher-Stace September 1, 2009

Filed under: book review — stackscene @ 8:30 pm
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**Disclaimer**: The author of the work being discussed today is a personal friend of mine. I like reading things my friends write, but can’t possibly pretend to be objective about the work. I do think, however, that I can give enough of an idea of the book that a reader should be able to make a decision as to whether or not they would like to read the book.

I met Nicole Kornher-Stace at Readercon this year, and almost immediately fell in love with her words. I say this because she is the featured poet in the Summer issue of the online poetry magazine Goblin Fruit, and I got to hear her read one of the poems from the feature, The Changeling Always Wins. I love poetry that has a sense of humor, and this piece in particular is dark and twisted and a little creepy, but also very, very funny. To cross-promote my own stuff for a second, if you’re interested in finding out more about Nicole’s poetry and Goblin Fruit, I just did an interview with the editors of the publication on my podcast, We Have Thumbs.

The upshot of all of this was that I liked Miss Kornher-Stace, I liked her work, and she had a new novel, her first, being sold in the dealer’s room at the con. So I grabbed a copy of Desideria (Amazon links for illustration, please support your local retailers when possible) and tossed it on one of the book stacks. I recently got around to reading it, and finished it last night, so I’m trying to get a review written before I lose any of the dreaminess of this book.

Dreaminess isn’t the right word. That implies something sort of soft and pretty, and this book is gorgeous, but not pretty. I’ve mentioned that Kornher-Stace is a poet, and that definitely comes across in her prose. The opening line of the prologue is such a well-turned, brain-snagging phrase that I literally read the line several times, savoring the imagery, before I could move on to the rest. “At first she does not know just how or why the lamp is in her hand, its glass and brass and fern-curled fire;” the sentence continues, but it takes a bit more time for the dream-like images to begin to resolve into a character and story. That story is about Ange St. Loup, the woman holding the lamp, who is an actress in a theatre. Ange is known as a brilliant actress, but what only her fellow actors know is that she’s prone to getting a little *too* into character. Think method acting taken to a dangerous extreme. (Note: the story-bits I’m about to divulge are found out fairly early on and thus I do not consider them to be spoilery) Somehow, Ange has fallen down into one of her characters, and accidentally starts a fire in the theatre, and is taken to an insane asylum after jumping out the window. The story that follows cuts between Ange’s surfacing memories of her time in the theatre and her present reality of the asylum of Amaranth. It’s often difficult to decide what is real, and that only gets harder as the book continues and the machinations of some of the supporting characters are made clear. On the subject of those characters, one of my very minor complaints about the book is that I felt like it took a really long time to get a good handle on the rather large cast. I admit however, that this is partially a personal failure, and possibly the result of reading when tired. After finished the book though, I thought about it some more and actually think it suits the structure of the book. After all, we’re meeting these characters through Ange’s memories, and the memories start out vague and become more focused as she regains her sense of self, so allowing the characters to sharpen in focus as the book progresses feels right to me.

Be warned, this is not a happy book, and has elements of abuse and other possibly triggering elements. The ending is good and solid, although disappointing in a very personal way that I’m not sure I can talk about without spoilers, but it all makes sense and does give resolution. I loved this book, but don’t go into it expecting anything light or sweet, or an ending that reinstates the status quo.

If you’re interested in trying out some of Kornher-Stace’s other works before committing to a novel, she has a short story up at Fantasy Magazine, as well as the poetry already mentioned at Goblin Fruit.

Spoilers and more discussion behind the jump.

This book is hard to talk about without spoilers! I’m still going to try to keep it to a minimum, but I really recommend that you finish the book before reading this section, ok? It’s worth it to be surprised, I promise. And that pretty well sums up this book to me: it’s sometimes difficult due to a variety of factors from the poetic language to the strange and disconnected nature of Ange’s memories, and so on, but in the end, it’s completely worth it.

Spoilers begin now, this is your last warning.

I mentioned being disappointed with the ending, right? I should restate that. I’m not disappointed with the ending as an ending, because it makes perfect sense to the story and the characters, but it’s sad! She killed off characters that I had really come to like, despite the amount of time it took for me to feel like I really had a handle on them, and I found myself really wanting the ending to explain that they weren’t really dead see, that was all in Ange’s head as well! You see, the major issue of the book is that very little of what Ange believes of her post-theatre life is real. No really, the asylum, the other inmates, the warders, it’s all in her head, with minor help from a few of the other characters. When Ange finally wakes up and realizes what’s happening, the book seems to be heading towards a reversal of most of what has happened, so it’s not unreasonable to think that maybe, just maybe, the fire she set in the theatre (The Minerva) wasn’t as bad as we were lead to believe, or possibly didn’t happen at all. So maybe all of those characters didn’t die after all? But no, the fire was not part of the Specialist’s plan to create sort of a French-baroque version of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, and nearly ruined everything for him which, given that he’s a complete monster, would have been just fine.

Really though, if the book had ended with any variant of “no really it was all a dream” I would have breathed a sigh of relief that the characters I liked were still alive, and then I would have been pissed. The book is sad as is but it works. If the rest of the Minerva’s crew weren’t dead, they would have been looking for Ange, and she might not have had the chance to get herself out of the jail she was in, both the physical one and the one in her own mind. It also means that she would have a home and family of sorts to return to, and the status quo would have been returned, which is something that can drive me crazy in books. Why did I read this whole story if in the end, everything is the same as it was? What’s the point, you know? As it is having no one and no where to go, Ange is forced to contemplate a completely new life for herself, hopefully outside of the theatre.

So yeah, I ended up completely loving it, although it felt very grim in places.


5 Responses to “Desideria, by Nicole Kornher-Stace”

  1. […] This post was Twitted by emilytheslayer […]

  2. CSECooney Says:

    Oh, it was a gorgeous nightmare, wasn’t it? The turns of phrase, the smell of the greasepaint, the points of the stage swords, the red glass stigmata, the ice of it, the jaggedness! I, too, wanted to wail at the end. How DARE she? After all the WORK we had to do reading it, falling in love with the poetry and the madness, and then KABLAM. But ya gotta give it to the lady. She delivers.

    • stackscene Says:

      Absolutely. As usual, you have better words for it than I! But yes, I was devastated to think of Embeth and Gabriel especially, and Veroniche and d’Esme particularly, being lost in flames from the hand of someone they loved and protected so fiercely. Harsh! Awful! But what would be the point, otherwise?

  3. I found myself really wanting the ending to explain that they weren’t really dead see, that was all in Ange’s head as well!

    THIS. COMPLETELY. I RAILED at her for HOURS after that.

    • stackscene Says:

      Ha! She told me that. 🙂 I cried a little and then thought about it and decided it just made no sense for it to end any other way. Sucks, though.

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