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Francesca Forrest: Pen Pal [Jun. 15th, 2014|01:29 pm]

It was LJ that told me about Pen Pal; I can't now remember who I read enthusing about it, except that it was more than one person (one of them was almost certainly sartorias, who talks about it to the author, here). It was LJ that told me that is was available on offer at Amazon, though again I can't remember precisely who posted that. All of which means that I owe LJ a big thankyou, and here it is.

Full disclosure: I don't actually know Francesca Forrest, but when I searched for her, I found asakiyume's LJ, and realised I had encountered that icon among the comments on various friends' posts - so in that sense, we have - sort of - met.

Anyway, Pen Pal. It's a stunning novel, luminous and imaginative, built from the correspondence between two people living difficult lives in extraordinary locations.

The two correspondents are endearing, and their narratives are gripping, but it was the places that had me hypnotised from the start. Em lives in Mermaid's Hands, a village on the Gulf Coast of the USA which is build on mud but floats up on the rising tide: it has its own beliefs and folklore, but Em goes to a perfectly ordinary school, and her elder brother is in an American prison. She sends a message in a bottle, and with a little help it reaches Kaya, a political prisoner in a prison for one, the "Lotus on the Ruby Lake", on a wooden raft arrached to the crater of a volcano above a lake of lava. Either one of these could be the starting point for a captivating story, but the richness of having both to play with, the contrast - and the parallels - between the two, makes a very special book.

In the sense that neither of the settings of Pen Pal actually exists, it's a fantasy novel; there is no overt magic in it, though some of what happens is described in terms which are not entirely rational, and the reader can choose to accept those descriptions at face value (it works better if you do). But the problems which confront the central characters are very much real-world issues. After the fantasy of manners, this is the fantasy of politics. Occasionally I was aware of a political consciousness rather closer to the surface of the narrative than was entirely comfortable: there was a pill in the jam, but the pill was a wholesome one, and it was such delicious jam...

Although the heart of Pen Pal is the exchange of letters between Em and Kaya, their two voices, the novel is very much not restricted to two characters: each of them has friends, family, community and antagonists, and some of the minor characters are as real as the two central figures. People do unexpected things, and the narrative resolves in unexpected ways, to reach a satisfying conclusion.

Pen Pal website

[User Picture]From: sartorias
2014-06-15 01:35 pm (UTC)
Well put. Usually novels with political consciousness get my eyes rolling, especially when they exhort me in how to think, but here I was with it all the way: I felt personalities behind the various decisions. Some angry, some desperate. Makes all the difference.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2014-06-15 03:02 pm (UTC)
Usually novels with political consciousness get my eyes rolling...

Yes. It's unfair on the author, that we criticise them if they get things wrong, but roll our eyes if we can see the effort they are making to get things right.

I suppose I did feel I was being - maybe not exhorted how to think, but certainly encouraged in choosing how not to think! On the other hand, there was a lot of nuance in some of those choices!
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