The world is full of retellings of the Brothers Grimm lately, but Lisa Goldstein's new novel The Uncertain Places makes the world of fairy tales feel like a living place, with a long history that intersects with our own world.
The Grimms' stories are much stranger and darker than many people realize from looking at the Disneyfied versions, and Goldstein's novel reveals that even the original Grimm texts were censored by vengeful fairies. Untangling the truth about these perverse supernatural bargains, and making sense of the complicated relationship between the fairy realm and our world, requires major cunning and supreme detective work.
Goldstein's book starts off a bit slow, but soon enough you find yourself condemned to keep turning pages late into the night like a hero who's cursed to keep dancing. Spoilers ahead...
Lisa Goldstein won an American Book Award for her novel The Red Magician, and her story collection Travelers In Magic contains some of the most arresting fantasy story-telling I've ever come across. So the arrival of a new Goldstein fantasy is a major cause for rejoicing. And The Uncertain Places does not disappoint.
The Uncertain Places starts in 1971, when two young Berkeley students, Ben and Will, fall in love with two sisters, Maddie and Livvy Feierabend. The Feierabend family appears charmingly eccentric and carefree, living on a rundown house in Napa Valley winery. But they soon learn that the Feierabend clan is both blessed and chained by a bargain they made long ago with a fairy queen or evil witch – every generation, one girl in the family falls asleep for seven years, and in return the family always has good luck.
The girl who falls asleep for seven years is known as the "bondmaid," and the fairies are so keen on keeping the details of this arrangement secret, they even conspired to keep the word "bondmaid" out of the Oxford English Dictionary. We soon realize the bondmaid's sleep is not a peaceful one – while her body rests, her spirit is off fighting an endless, exhausting war in the other realm. The knowledge of this one girl's sacrifice damages the rest of the family, who live with the guilt or try to treat the affected girl like a non-person.
Everybody assumes that Maddie and Livvy's younger sister, Rose, will be the bondmaid – but just as Will and Livvy are finally cementing their love, Livvy falls into a deep, inescapable slumber. Will refuses to accept that the woman he loves will be dead to the world until her late twenties – even though he, too, is benefiting from the Feierabend luck now that he's part of the family. Will goes on a quest to discover the secret of waking up Livvy.
Will keeps poking into the hidden world of the fairies, invading their hidden places and digging into their buried lore – until the fairies finally punish Will for his intrusions. The fairies curse Will to be their slave for 50 years, cleaning the houses of people whom the fairies have had dealings with.
Can Will escape from the fifty-year curse? Can he figure out a way to rouse his beloved from her unnatural coma? A lesser novel would dwell on these questions for the bulk of the story. But Goldstein's tale moves quickly, much like a real fairy tale, and in many ways the story gets going after Will has already outwitted the fairies and gotten both his freedom and his girlfriend back. The question of what happens after you've outsmarted the evil witch – or have you really? – turns out to be much, much more interesting than how you go about outsmarting her.
Goldstein keeps the reversals and tests coming, because every time you've made it through one riddle, there's always another one after that. There are endless traps and deceptive boons in fairyland. Part of the fun of the book is watching Will, Livvy and the other characters navigate this tricky world and untangle all of its mysteries.
At the same time, the sprawling story of the Feierabend family provides its own kind of magic – through eyewitnesses and source documents that Will uncovers, we learn about the family's past as bootleggers during Prohibition and the people, over the decades, who have sought to join the family and take advantage of their amazing luck. Over time, Goldstein reveals more of what makes this particular family so special, and why the fairies chose this particular brood.
Ursula K. Le Guin provided the cover blurb for this book, and she's also credited with helping with some research stuff in the acknowledgements. And there is something very reminiscent of Le Guin's recent work in this novel, especially the later Earthsea novels. Towards the end of the novel, especially, Goldstein leads you towards a realization that dealing with the fairy realm is more a task of understanding, rather than vanquishing, your opponent. What appear to be battles may actually be something very different. And victory and defeat both involve different ways of creating a balance between our realm and another one.
The final truth Goldstein reveals about the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales is that they, in turn, imprison the other-worldly creatures they describe. The "evil witch" queen who takes our children is stuck in that role, because that's the role we've imagined for her. We're imprisoning the fairies as much as they're imprisoning us. Freedom isn't a state of being – it's a riddle whose answer changes over time.