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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Onion Girl

Reviewed: July 5, 2005
By: Charles de Lint
Publisher: TOR Books
508 pages, $21.95

Jilly Coppercorn is an artist in Newford whose specialty is painting the magic in the world that most of us can't see. She is everyone's friend and helper and usually full of hope and encouragement. She is the center of a group of literary and musical folk who have strong connections of one type or another with the myths that are woven into the world we know.

Jilly is also the center of this book, but it's a Jilly that has many layers, like the girl in the song from which the book takes its name. It could as easily have been called “The Broken Girl,” which is how Jilly thinks of herself for most of the story. In April of 1999 Jilly has an accident, is hospitalized by a hit and run driver. Her convalescence is slow and painful, and her only relief is the fact that something about the accident now enables her to do the sort of controlled dreaming that she needs in order to visit the dreamlands.

The existence of this otherworld is at the core of the mythology that de Lint has been developing though most of his work over the years. While it sometimes feels like a sort of New Age / First Nations blend of myth structures, it's deeper than that, and provides a lot of scope for combining personal stories with fantasy.

Some of de Lint's key characters are not quite human; some are partly human; some very far from human, more like personifications of primal forces and emotions. Many of these beings play important roles in this story, but there are two people who are most important.

Jilly is one of these, and we learn a great deal about her background that we did not know before. She is the onion girl of the title, a woman with many layers, many talents, and many deep hurts.

The other major viewpoint character is Raylene. She comes out of nowhere on page 33, at the beginning of a brutal chapter in which we see her finally dealing with years of abuse at the hands of her white trash older brother, in a family which could be called that only in name, not in reality.

Raylene and her best friend, Pinky, spend much of the book living the bad life. Pinky taught Raylene to be tough, and the two of them shared a bond that carried them through thick and thin, never mind that they created a lot of their own bad karma along the way. They also discover a way to become effective dreamers, and glory in the carnage they create in lupine form within the dreamworld. They don't, at first, know how or what they are doing, but it works for them, and it seems to be one of the few things in their lives that does.

The two seemingly independent stories continue for some time before the connection between them comes clear, and I'm not going to blow the mystery for you by revealing it here. I can say that the structure is a bit like one of those thrillers where you take turns following the good guys and the bad, wondering how they will get together. That's not quite true in that there are typically no real human villains in a de Lint story. There are people who have made bad choices and are seriously in need of enlightenment. Raylene and Pinky fall into that category. Between upbringing (or lack of it) and hard luck they just don't know any better. They've never had  guardian angel give them a hand.

The angels in de Lint's books are mostly people, though some of them wear more than none face, and most of them are touched to some degree by the mystery that lurks in the corners of your eyes, where sometimes you see things that aren't there - or are they? - for just an instant.

As always this novel is an engaging blend of the familiar and the mysterious, mortared together with interesting people whose biggest problems are their most personal ones.

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