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Hard to believe that any creature born into this world could have such a beautiful song. She may be a mimic, she may steal her songs from others, or change them, or forget them, but I still say there is no creature that does more honor to God than a mockingbird. If she is inconstant, it is her nature. If her songs are stolen, well, there is nothing false in the moment of her singing.

--p.201-2

 

 

I must admit, I was disappointed with Mockingbird, even though, like his wonderful novel, Perfect Circle, it was nominated for both the Nebula and World Fantasy awards. Published six years previously, it boasts the same 1st-person voice warmly embracing us with self-effacing humor and wacky, down-trodden insights. It reminds me a lot of the lead character in 2007's Juno (1)—who is also convulsing and flustered with pregnancy—while the switch from male to female narrator appears seamless. My problem with the novel is that its supernatural device—seemingly emblematic for genetic continuance—is terribly underdeveloped to the point of wondering why it is there in the first place.

This is a story about an oldest daughter who receives little attention, yet bears the burden of her strong-willed, dominating, and authentic witch Mother's commitments. The novel opens with her death, and follows the tribulations of the two daughters. Our narrator Toni, the oldest, has inherited the Riders, who are “small gods”(Ace Books, ISBN 0441005470, c.1998, p.10) that, for the opportunity of reveling in our world, had helped Momma Elena through their various idiosyncratic gifts. Growing up, Toni has seen the damage done by these supernatural tyrants and has no desire to party with them, although, in several instances, she has no choice. As she says, “I'm no mockingbird. I've got one song to sing and that's my song”(p.29). Desperate to break away from her Mother's sanctions—“alive she was a monster, but dead she's inescapable”(p.163)—she moves to take control of her life by creating another life through artificial insemination. Using cart-before-the-mare thinking, she then sets a quest for the right husband.

Candy—the younger, far better-looking and more coddled sister—has her own magic. Although Riderless, she can see into the future, but is only privy to good scenarios. Life for her is charmed and worry-free; however, she works in a meat bar called Slick Willie's and has been pre-destined to marry Carlos, a vato with a harridan mother himself and whose ride—the “muertomobile”(p.32)—should be permanently displayed in the Lowrider Hall of Fame. But this is present-day Houston, a humidity-drenched landscape that's described as “a flat expanse of broccoli crowns stretching to the horizon, interrupted some miles away by the white mushroom cap of the Astrodome”(p.76). And at least Carlos' family is “normal”.

What is remarkable about Stewart's writing is the easy, down-home way it slips the reader into a spectral influence while holding hands with characters accepted immediately as good friends working out their decidedly non-psychic, commonplace problems. Mockingbird scratches at it, but never transcends above the ordinary or develops any particular, societal oversight. The relationship between the reality of its situations—the world we all struggle through—and the intention of its fantasy-sided allusions to symbolize these situations weaken the overall power of both by feeling underused. Yes, “there are some gifts that cannot be refused”(p.69), just as the mockingbird cannot alter its nature. Examining that revelation makes this novel a fine, engaging read. And, if this is a one-character work, so be it. But somehow it feels that with more fullness, more body, it could have been an exemplary one.

 

1) While looking back onto this novel, my mind's eye conjures Ellen Page instead of a personal creation of Toni based on author Stewart's prose. But that's a personal Rant.

 

© copyright 12/13/2012 by Larry Crawford

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