BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

All of the reviews I’ve read about A Stranger In Olondria talk about it being about bibliophilia, that is, the love of books. The love of books certainly does run through the novel, but I actually think it’s more about spirituality—with the written word being the locus through which transcendence is achieved.

stranger in olondria cover

The form the novel takes is the bildungsroman: a novel about the initiation of a youth into the wider world. Jevick is the son of a prosperous pepper merchant, a tyrant of a man who has two wives and controls a plantation on a tropical island. When it becomes clear that Jevick’s older brother is unfit for inheritance, Jevick is trained to be his father’s successor. A tutor from the distant, northern land of Olondria is hired, ostensibly to teach young Jevick the language and customs of that land in order to be a competent trader. But the tutor instills in the boy a love of the written word and an obsession with the exotic land.  Jevick eventually travels to Olondria on his first routine trade trip, and—very much against his will—becomes literally haunted by the ghost of Jissavet, a young woman and fellow islander he met on the voyage from the Tea Islands. Ghosts, in a heretical Olondrian religion, are considered angels, and those who communicate with them are living saints. When Jevick’s haunting becomes public knowledge, he is placed under arrest and becomes the unwilling pawn between two religious factions.

In spite of this fairly complex set up, the novel isn’t about politics. The narrative form is that of the memoir, or its even more antiquated cousin, the philosophical romance. Jevick’s narrative meanders, often interrupting the narrative flow to quote poetry or bits of Olondrian philosophy. It’s slow, and richly descriptive—a marked difference  the often breakneck pace of other fantasy novels. At times, the book becomes a travelogue—kind of like the books written by John Berendt (e.g., Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). Because of this solemn quality, the magic and the world-building is organic and believable. Other times, it has the elegiac melancholy of Hermann Hesse’s novels (particularly Steppenwolf and Siddhartha). The land of Olondria is a character. The country has a Mediterranean feel, in its fauna and cultures. The imaginary religion borrows from Hinduism and Egyptian mythology with a dash of decadence, resonant of the Greek mysteries.

The novel’s ending is ambiguous; no magic ring is recovered or kingdom conquered. Rather, Jevick, and Olondria itself, are spiritually changed. A Stranger in Olondria is a richly rewarding experience for those who love prose poetry and non-traditional narratives. Sofia Samatar’s debut novel is a fine exemplar of bibliomancy.

Favorite Spooky Reads: Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved may be the only horror novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. And it is a horror novel, in my opinion. It makes use of the tropes supernatural gothic fiction (in this case, a vengeful ghost) to examine the dehumanizing effects of America’s great sin, the Peculiar Institution of slavery. Beloved is, of course, also a historical novel that takes as its jumping off point a historical footnote about an escaped female slave who murdered her own child rather than have her be raised in slavery. But Beloved, the spirit of the murdered infant come back as a young woman forms the bulk of the novel.

 

Sethe (perhaps her name alludes to Lethe, the Greek river of forgetting) has escaped with her four children from Sweet Home, a hellish plantation where slaves are routinely tortured. When the foreman, the sinisterly named Schoolteacher, finds her in Ohio (a slave-free state), he witnesses her slitting the throat of her unnamed infant daughter. He declares her a wild animal and not fit for slave service. The murdered child becomes a poltergeist, driving away both her sons after a few years with her wild antics. When a fellow escaped slave, Paul D, arrives at Sethe’s house, the ghost child is temporary banished.

Beloved comes back in corporeal form, as a young woman. Forget Samara (the video ghost girl of the Ringu trilogy) or the possessed Regan McNeil (The Exorcist) or even telekinetic terror Carrie White. Beloved could have them for a light lunch. Because Beloved is a cipher, and her agenda is never clear. She is endlessly hungry, for Sethe, for love, for experience, for sweets. Does she want to possess Sethe—both figuratively and literarly? Or does she want to destroy her? Beloved is every wrong thing about slavery and racism given form, and she will do anything—to fill her endless, aching and damaged need. Beloved is beautiful, seductive, perverse and brutal.

Morrison’s Faulkner language quivers and fractures in her attempt to capture the essence of this spirit. The imagery she uses is violent and disturbing—light, blood, sugar are invoked. Because Beloved has a strong historical subtext, its horror is even more powerful.