Rebecca Hahn caught my interest one paragraph into her debut YA novel A Creature of Moonlight:
All summer long the villagers have been talking of the woods. Even those living many hills away can see it: their crops are disappearing; their land is shrinking by the day. We hear story after story. One evening a well will be standing untouched, a good twenty feet from the shade, and when the farmer’s daughter goes to draw water in the morning, there will be nothing left but a pile of stones and a new tree or three growing out of the rubble. And all along beside it, the woods stretch on and on, where no woods were the night before.
There’s a creepiness to that idea — the woods moving in such a predatory fashion — but also a nice fabulist tone and a not-so-creepy storytelling voice that won me over immediately. And for the most part, Hahn made good on that early promise, crafting a quiet novel with surprising depth.
The voice belongs to Marnie, who has spent most of her young life living with her “Gramps” in a small house where they grow flowers for the villagers and lords that come down from the castle to wander Marnie’s gardens and speak to her grandfather in hushed tones. Clearly however, there is a lot more going on.
It’s slowly revealed, for instance, that her Gramps is a man of some importance and that Marnie is there under his protection, which may be growing thin. Meanwhile, the woods, after a period of retreat are moving again. All of them save the one behind Marnie’s house, which is home to strange creatures, including a strange woman who knits with pine needles and whose siren call Marnie is finding harder to resist.
What happened in Marnie’s past that she needs protection? Who is/was her grandfather? Why are the woods on the march again? Will Marnie give in to the wood’s call? Might she end up like her best friend who recently disappeared into the woods, one of many girls who have done so over the years? And what has happened to those girls?
Eventually, the reader will get answers to all those questions, as well as others. Granted, it takes a little longer to get them than I would have preferred; A Creature of Moonlight would probably have been better served coming in at nearer 200 pages than the 300 it reaches. But I’ve long grown resigned to thinking that about most books I read lately — that shorter would have been better.
The pace is a bit slow, but unlike the page count, I don’t consider this a flaw. Nor did I wish for more “action” scenes or a greater sense of urgency, though both were absent. Some admittedly might wish for a faster-moving narrative, but I found the slow, almost dreamy pace well suited to the fabulist nature of the story. As is Hahn’s prose, which varies from simple and lyrical depending on the moment, but is always well matched.
Fable and story play their own role in the novel, as Marnie relates several tales to the reader, of how the woods first formed, of what happened to the last dragon, of a girl the dragon loved. Story also plays its part in the form of metaphor, as what happens with Marnie, especially in the latter part of the novel, makes for a gracefully complex metaphor for adolescence, especially female adolescence.
Even at her young age, Marnie knows “that you don’t stop a story half done. You keep on going, through heartbreak and pain and fear, and times there is a happy ending, and times there isn’t. Don’t matter . . . You don’t stop a story before you reach the end.”
Marnie will go through that heartbreak and pain and fear. She will see power wielded, will wield her own. Will find some who love her, some who pretend to, and some of whom she can’t say which is which. And she will need to decide what love she has of her own to share or not. She will find and lose family and a past. Will find herself between worlds, between ages, between choices. And as she says, the reader will not want to stop the story before they reach the end.
A Creature of Moonlight is recommended for its lyrical voice, original fairy-tale-like atmosphere (more faerie than fairy), and layered depth.