For anyone who’s ever read Francesca Lia Block before, you’ll know what to expect here. Riddled with teenage angst, fairytale settings and dense, poetic language, Echo provides another glimpse into the mind of tortured, restless adolescence. As always, Block’s novel stands outside any particular genre; is it fantasy or drama? Poetry or prose? Magic realism or something else entirely? As always, her trademark style is the use of her intoxicating language, which again defies description, but is best compared to fantasist Patricia McKillip. Like McKillip, reading Block for the first time is always a little confusing, for the language is layered so thickly over narrative and character that it’s difficult to keep track of what’s happening and who it’s happening to.
This is especially true in the case of Echo, as the story is not just about this young woman attempting to find her place in the world, but concerns the myriad of friends, lovers, parents and predators that full her life, who are all given their own intertwining stories. For some, her techniques may come across as weak and pretentious. I don’t consider myself qualified enough as a critic to make any assessment on the skill of the writing; such things all come down to a manner of taste, and I can only attest that I like it!
Echo is a young woman born to a stunningly beautiful woman and an artist who only has eyes for her. Feeling suffocated by her angelic mother, Echo goes in search of vindication elsewhere, finding temporary fulfillment in the arms of a string of lovers, drugs and alcohol, dead-end jobs and painful beauty regimes — all the time searching for something to give her purpose and meaning. On the way she meets a range of characters; her lover Smoke who sacrificed everything to save the life of his daughter Eden, the vampiric Nina and Mark who set their sights on Echo, and of course her own parents who must deal with their failing battle against cancer.
Alongside fantasy elements such as angels, vampires and fairies are serious issues such as drugs, sex, prostitution and anorexia, all of which are intertwined into a twisted, fairytale version of Los Angeles that Block paints as both a paradise and a hellish dungeon. Continuously haunted by the memories of the angel who saved her from the ocean, Echo finally must find completion in the discovery of her true self and in making peace with her inner demons.
A risk here is of the story being all style and no substance, made especially confusing by having to keep track of Block’s secondary characters and the changing points of view. When it comes to a writer as unique as Block, this all comes down to personal taste and whether her writing style appeals to you personally. If analysed carefully, it is true that there is very little meat to the story; as always Block is more interested in personal development and word-play. However, I do feel that this is not Block’s best work, for several reasons.
As mentioned, there are too many characters vying for the spotlight and as such cannot make an impact on the reader due to the short amount of time each is given. With this in mind, the amount of time in which the story takes place is also rather muddled; Eden goes from an infant to a teenager within the space of a few paragraphs, though none of the other characters seem to age or change in any significant way during this time passage. Finally, Echo herself is a rather frustrating heroine. There is nothing truly tragic about her life (though she has enough presence of mind to admit this to herself), and so her self-abuse comes across as rather self-pitying. Her long line of failed romances gets tedious after awhile — by the time we get to Valentine, I’d had enough. Finally, I also felt it was a little strange that Echo’s journey of self-discovery ends with her falling into the arms of yet another boy; wouldn’t it been more true to the novel’s purpose to have Echo simply be happy with herself?
And yet for all of this, the first thing I did once I’d finished the book was turn to the start and read it all again. Despite its flaws, there is something undeniably attractive about Francesca Lia Block‘s books. Try one and see for yourself.