Rain Village by Carolyn Turgeon

In an age when so many novelists seem compelled to play around with narrative structure, constructing multi-layered webs of perspective, situation and chronology, it’s odd to come across such a simple, straightforward debut novel as Rain Village, in which one character’s story, told in the first person, runs very simply from beginning to end. There are no flashbacks, no subplots to speak of, no variations on perspective and no real narrative complexity — which, in this case, leaves you feeling unsatisfied and a bit hungry, as though some vital element is missing.

The story is a fairy tale, a version of the Cinderella theme. Little Tessa Riley, with her tiny “starfish hands,” is teased by other children, who call her “a munchkin or a freak.” Her sister ignores her, and her cruel, abusive parents make her hang from a bar in the hope that her body will stretch to a more acceptable size. This poor little mite, rejected by everyone, is taken up by a mysterious woman called Mary Finn who’s come to take over the village library. Mary Finn, fairy godmother to Tessa’s Cinderella, is a strange, magic gypsy lady with “cat’s eyes” and “hair no earthly comb could ever get through,” whose wrists “jingled with bracelets” and who smells of “cloves and cinnamon.” A former trapeze artist with a sad, haunted past, Mary alternates between stamping books in the library and cooking up spells for the gossipy, lovelorn locals; little Tessa becomes both her friend and her paid assistant.

Over time, Mary teaches Tessa to read and write, lends her books (Sister Carrie is a favorite), and enchants her with tales of circus life and a faraway, storybook place called Rain Village. When Tessa is beaten and raped by her evil father, Mary tends to her wounds and cheers her up by agreeing to teach her the art of the trapeze, something Tessa’s been begging her to do for months, and at which — despite her “starfish hands” — she turns out to be a natural, thanks to her diminutive size (and, no doubt, all those years spent hanging from that bar in her bedroom). When, for mysterious reasons, Mary drowns herself in the river, Tessa leaves town in search of the same circus Mary used to work for, determined to discover the secrets of her mentor’s tormented, romantic past. On the way, she grows up, becomes beautiful, and turns into a star of the trapeze. She also falls in love, marries, and makes her way to Rain Village, where she learns the truth about Mary Finn and her troubled past.

Turgeon’s story is consciously formulaic. Her use of archetypes for characters (evil parents, wicked sister, changeling, fairy godmother, exotic suitor) might work well for a short story, or even a brief novella, but in a novel of over 300 pages, you start hungering for more substantial fare. I found myself growing impatient with the narrative and tired of the characters; I missed the potential distractions of subplots and minor characters; I wanted more to get my teeth into. I felt as though I, like Tessa, was flying through the air without a safety net, nothing to grab hold of, no firm ground to stand on, which can be thrilling for a while, but quickly becomes disconcerting. The back cover of the novel describes it as an “enchantment”, and while intoxicating in small draughts — everybody loves magic spells, circuses, sparkling lights, mysterious, cinnamon-scented gypsies — there has to be some kind of psychological complexity to sustain the narrative.

Rain Village would make a good prose-poem or fantasy sequence, but as a novel, I’m afraid it falls flat. The characters just aren’t believable enough — they’re not the same living, breathing human beings who inhabit the world we live in. The story set, ostensibly, “in the early part of the 20th century,” and there are a few, if vague, specifics (Tessa reads Sister Carrie; she joins the circus in Kansas City). At the same time, however, this is a world in which peasants are always carrying sacks of potatoes, everyone believes in magic spells, and men who meet the eyes of Mary Finn “were liable to start writing feverish poetry late into the night, or painting murals filled with flowers and beautiful women, set in places they’d never seen.” Either that, or they are “moved to song or dance or tears”.

Rain Village may be a story about magical people, but they’re magical people inhabiting a recognisable world, so there has to be enough psychological realism for us to grow engaged with their experiences. A touchstone here is the work of Angela Carter, another magic realist, whose work covers the same ground as Turgeon’s, but more successfully, notably in Nights at the Circus and The Magic Toyshop. Carter’s characters seem like real people; you can imagine them going to the toilet (in fact, they sometimes do), where Turgeon’s attempts at realism — Tessa’s rape by her father, for example — still have the tone of fairy tale tropes, and feel as though they can be overcome with a magic spell, a cup of Mary Finn’s special cranberry tea, or a turn on the flying trapeze. It’s true that even Angela Carter has similar trouble sustaining her narratives over the length of a long novel, but her characters feel like real human beings, which is what makes you want to stick with them. In Rain Village, your interest quickly trickles away.