Saturday, January 12, 2013
Deerskin by Robin McKinley (Book #1)
To be fair, I didn't mean to pick a horribly disturbing book. I really wanted to read Robin McKinley, and since it's long-awaited reads month on Things Mean A Lot, I picked up her first book I found during a quick skim through the library.
Also, trigger warning. This book deals with rape, abuse, and what follows afterwords.
I give this book props for just diving into the tricky subject matter. The rape scene, though not as graphic as some other ones I've read, is still disturbing. The point in the book when Lissar wanders into the woods practically bleeding to death is also pretty gross and pretty boring. But, there's loads of symbolism, and is unmistakably an adult book (unless you were thinking otherwise up until this point.) Again, I've never read The Hero and the Crown or The Blue Sword, so I can't compare her writing here to her children's books.
So what's Deerskin about? It begins with a princess, who we will call Lissar, being told the story of her parents by her old nursemaid. Her mother was the most beautiful princess in the entire kingdom, and her father won her hand by doing a seemingly impossible task. They were both so wildly in love that they give no attention to their daughter, and spend their days staring into each other eyeballs, I guess. One day, the queen loses some of her beauty, and it causes her to fall ill. She realizes she will die, and asks her distraught husband to paint a portrait of her in her memory. Meanwhile, the King loses his mind, debilitated by the grief. Once the portrait is finished, the queen dies, but before she does, she makes the king promise he will only marry someone who is as beautiful as she was. The King seemingly regains his ability to function. The kingdom is given gifts from other kings and royal families, including a dog, named Ash, for Lissar.
As the book continues, Lissar grows up with Ash by her side, less ignored than before, but still treated like a pawn in her father's court. On her 17th birthday, the King decides that Lissar is the only woman who could rival his wife's beauty, and plans to marry her. Lissar and most of the court are disgusted by this. She locks herself in her room with Ash in the days leading up to the wedding. However, on the night before the wedding, the king enters her room through the garden, nearly kills Ash, and savagely rapes and beats Lissar within an inch of her life. Lissar wills herself to live, and runs away into the woods with Ash in an effort to survive.
There's a lot to talk about in this book, and a lot of that talking I'm going to leave to someone else. There are so many symbols in the book - Lissar's little cabin the woods, the Moon Lady, her mother's painting, Ash herself...
I will go a little bit into detail here.
The book is spilt up into three parts, the first part comprised of Lissar's court life ending in her rape, and the second part about her struggle to survive and her travels. The book seems to change pace and subject at breakneck speeds - one second we're reading about a whirlwind of sparkly ball gowns, and the next we're reading about Lissar struggling to make stew with an old potato in painstaking detail. A lot of this, I believe, was deliberate. Not only does it emphasize the falseness of court life, but also shows that deep down, we all have some sort of natural instinct (potentially savage, in her father's case).
In the woods, the small shack that she lives in is possibly/probably a symbol of her physical recovery and acceptance of her body. This part of the novel purposefully is hard to read and a little nauseating. McKinley goes into full detail here about cleaning wounds, skinning animals, and a lot of other gross, disturbing stuff. Of course, Lissar regains her physical strength, somewhat thanks to a mysterious "Moon Woman" who gives her time to heal, but still must deal with the emotional repercussions of the incestuous rape. This part of the novel is actually a lot nicer. The pleasures of helping others and real human connection help Lissar come to grips with herself, and in perhaps the best part of the novel, the ending isn't some candy-coated fairy tale love confession, but a suggestion that healing takes time and help from others.
This book still deserves a lot of praise. For a fantasy, it hits eerily close to home in subject matter. Lissar eventually confronts her demons (SPOILER: And her Father gets his, too) and realizes what it is to be alive during the course of the book. As life shapes all of our beings, hers is shaped by a more disturbing event, but life indeed goes on, and with effort, time will heal wounds. I can't say I reccomend this book to everyone; if you're squeamish it might be tough, or if any of the things previously I mentioned are triggers. Sure it has its flaws: sometimes it's paced awkwardly, and the tone of the book is almost stressful. But, all of these things contribute to what the book is trying to portray, and in the end, I think it works beautifully. If you're up for an interesting read (and lots of dogs!) give it a try.