#tobyreads: Geography Revisited — Brian Francis Slattery, Francesca Lia Block, and Nicola Griffith Rewrite Familiar Landscapes

Nicola Griffith (via Aqueduct Press)
Nicola Griffith (via Aqueduct Press)

Fiction has a particular ability to rework familiar places into new iterations of themselves. In some cases, this can be by presenting alternate or fantastical versions of a certain space; in others, it can come through pushing that space into the future (or pulling it back into history.) The three books discussed today reveal new sides to cities and towns we thought we knew — and make for good, sometimes moving reading.

I’ve now read three of Brian Francis Slattery’s novels; the first two — Liberation and Spaceman Blues — possessed pulpier aspects, action-movie moves tied to emotional interactions that left the characters (and the reader) feeling raw. Lost Everything preserves that rawness, but takes a much more subdued approach — even amidst war and the possible end of civilization. The setting is the northeastern United States after horrific weather has altered the landscape and an ongoing civil war has left the population scarred. Here, a man goes in search of his lost son, accompanied by a priest. In the distance, a storm to dwarf all that came before looms, half rumor and half  cataclysm. Slattery takes a panoramic, sometimes mystical approach that recalls the films of Altman or Malick — his is a simple plot with abundant digressions, and the occasional musical interlude.

I was recently looking for some quality YA, and was pointed in the direction of Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels. (Hat-tip: Molly Templeton for that one.) Contained therein are her five Weetzie Bat novels, focusing on the members of a family living in the Los Angeles area. (That doesn’t really do the books justice, but it’s hard to summarize without taking all day — and much of the charm of the novels is in how Block makes her characters’ relationships seem like second nature, even when their connections are seemingly more complicated.) There are riffs on punk rock, film, and magic, all told in a matter-0f-fact narrative voice that treated events mundane and supernatural with the same aplomb. (Though for me, Missing Angel Juan lost something in its use of first-person narration.) I was thoroughly charmed throughout: both with the use of magic realism to the way that Block’s novels incorporate the genuinely horrific without it feeling out of place.

As someone who came of age in the mid-90s reading a lot of science fiction novels, I’d been hearing good things about Nicola Griffith‘s fiction for nearly twenty years. It took me about that long to read Slow River; cue the metaphorical smacking upside the head of my younger self. Though, to be fair, the younger version of me would probably not have been as impressed by Griffith’s ability to evoke the occasionally numbing rhythms of an unexciting job. Slow River opens with an abundance of information: in a near-future London, her protagonist Lore takes on a stolen identity and uses it to take on a fairly low-level job at a plant treating polluted water. Why, precisely, she’s doing this — and how it connects to a series of flashbacks of her arrival, three years earlier, in the city, reeling from a kidnapping — will gradually be revealed. There’s a third temporal strand as well: the earlier years of Lore’s life, beginning with her childhood as part of an affluent family and moving from there to her gradual disenchantment with long-buried secrets.

As the contours of its plot slowly reveal themselves, the elements that comprise Slow River also come into focus. It’s a kind of crime novel; it’s a surprisingly taut workplace drama; it’s a study of a deeply unhealthy relationship; and, due to a few technological elements, it’s also highly successful speculative fiction. This was the first book of Griffith’s I read this year; I am guessing it won’t be the last. It doesn’t hurt that her forthcoming novel Hild sounds like a smart take on the historical epic — another way of revisiting the familiar.

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