Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest, Of Bees and Mist

Amos Oz, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest (2005, translation from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Chatto & Windus 2010)
Erick Setiawan, Of Bees and Mist (Headline Review 2009)

The Re-enchantment web site’s tag line, ‘Not all fairy tales are for children,’ could have been coined with these two books in mind. Both have fairy tale settings (a village in a forest, an enchanted castle) and are shot through with fairy tale motifs. Both introduce supernatural elements in the matter-of-fact manner of fairy tales. Both, in the manner of fairy tales, have spirited, curious child protagonists – or start out that way. And both definitely have an adult readership in mind, though the first doesn’t leave potential child readers in the lurch, as the second does with its explicit sexual content.

Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest has elements of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ and other familiar tales, integrated into a completely serious fable. In a village in the middle of a forest, there are no animals – no birds, no fish, no insects, not even any earthworms. Something terrible happened long ago, when the older villagers were young, and now the village children are faced with a near pervasive silence about the past and stern warnings about the dangers of the night and the forest. Maya and Matti, our heroes, dare to investigate, and find that the adults’ stories about a demon who lives in the forest are both true and misleading. It’s a short read, just 137 pages, and though it becomes preachy towards the end, the preachiness, against the ‘mocking and scoffing disease’ of bullying ridicule, stays true to the fairy tale mode, leaving the reader to savour the deeper themes unharassed.

Those deeper themes have to do with memory and forgetting. As Matti says:

Maybe there should be another word, a special word that includes both remembering and forgetting: sometimes, out of the blue, a mother or father in the village imitates animal or bird sounds for their child. But a minute later, they regret it and correct themselves and explain that animals are merely a fairy tale. Then they sigh because our teacher, Emanuella, confuses us so much with all those crazy animal stories out of her poor head.

This reminds me of The Silence, Ruth Wajnryb’s fascinating book about how the children of Holocaust survivors gleaned hints of their parents’ stories from just such a process of remembering and not remembering, telling and not telling. As Amos Oz is Israeli, he may have had the Holocaust in mind. Or he may have been thinking of the Naqbah. Equally, I found myself thinking how in my childhood the history of dispossession and genocide of Australian Aborigines was both common knowledge and somehow unacknowledged. These reflections and associations arise from the narrative but never disrupt its integrity as a tale about two children and a village without any animals.

Sadly the same can’t be said for the ‘meanings’ of magical events in Of Bees and Mist. I confess up front that I stopped reading soon after page 50, but it was only because I knew other people love the book that I could force myself to last that long. Meridia lives in a big old house whose magical properties – perpetual cold and gloom, a staircase that stretches and contracts arbitrarily, strangely sentient surrounding mists – are pretty well explicitly presented as symbols of her parents’ unhappy marriage, her father’s extreme authoritarian coldness and her mother’s babbling, forgetful misery. Other magical details, such as a woman in the marketplace who grows herbs on her body for customers to snip, seem to be there as decorative afterthoughts. I revolted at the prospect of 500 pages of this sort of thing.

Was it fantasy writer Jo Walton who, when someone asked her what the dragons in her work represented, replied that they were just dragons? I guess I’m the kind of reader who wants my zombies to be zombies. In the middle of a zombie story, I want to be worried for the hero’s brains, not – at least not at the front of my mind – ruminating on modern society’s fear of the mob or feeling for the author’s deeply unhappy childhood.

Not all fairy tales are for children. Some aren’t for me.

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