“In the world of fairy tales, what was strange was also invariably trustworthy. One quickly learned to depend upon the old beggar woman, the hungry bird, the grateful fox.”
I didn’t realize how much I’d missed Charles de Lint’s urban fantasies until I borrowed Memory and Dream from a friend on a whim. I haven’t been reading much of his stuff for the past couple of years, and I’m not even sure why.
I do know that the landscape of urban fantasy has changed. Memory and Dream, published in 1994, is vastly different from the novels that are in vogue now. In de Lint’s work, and in the work of other writers publishing in the subgenre at the time, the Otherworld is both a metaphor for being out of place in mainstream society and a place where the wounds that set one apart can be healed. The protagonists are often those on the fringes of society: struggling artists, abuse victims, and the denizens of the street.
Memory and Dream centers around an artist who has given up the style of painting that she once loved. There’s a haunting, metaphysical reason; her work had the power to shape reality, and this gift led to tragedy in her past. The artist, Isabelle, is only persuaded to paint again in the old style as a last favor to a long-dead friend. The novel alternates between a “present” timeline and a “past” timeline. The “past” chapters slowly unfold the events, both happy and sad, that have led Isabelle to her current situation; the “present” chapters show the reawakening of her power and its consequences. De Lint does a great job of building tension in both timelines at once.
There’s not much more I can say without spoiling the plot, but I will say that I couldn’t put it down, and that it’s a moving story about art, love, friendship, forgiveness, abuse in its many forms, and what it means for a being to be truly “real.” It’s not completely without flaws — there’s a small error or two, and a subplot that seems too easily wrapped up — but Memory and Dream passes the most important test that determines whether I give a book five stars. Namely, I couldn’t get anything productive done while I was reading it!
I think I should probably add the warning that Memory and Dream contains themes of sexual abuse and suicide, which might be upsetting to some readers.