In the Palace of Repose
Prime Books. $29.95 (200 p.)
There is, of course, fantasy that comforts and coddles and allows the reader an avenue of easy escape. I prefer fiction that subverts and disturbs, that immerses one in the strange: fiction written, as Mervyn Peake wrote, "to break windows."
Holly Phillips breaks windows.
Once broken, her shards of glass fall inward and the darkness creeps in. It never shocks or engulfs, never smothers -- the quiet invasion is enough. Her haunting, lyrical prose flows through the opening and entrances.
These nine stories resonant with genre -- science fiction, fantasy, horror, whatever labels you want to apply -- but none of them *conform* to genre. And, although literate, none are ponderous or dull. They move from the darkly dreamed fantastic of the title story to the reality of a shattered world in which a young woman forgets who she is ("The Other Grace) to the new mystery of a "The Novel Ecology" which breeds fresh monsters and magic. The narrators and central characters, save one, are female -- solitary, alienated, singular, often caught between two worlds. The translator of "A Woman's Bones" belongs neither to her own people or the archeologists who disturb a resting place mythic power. A schoolgirl is menaced by a malevolent "curator" and trapped by her departed father's art in "Pen & Ink." A street girl becomes or, perhaps already is, "One of the Hungry Ones" who dance in the hunt and drink blood-red wine. A dead girl-child's bones are discovered in "By the Light of Tomorrow's Sun" and they are interred with those of her murderer and magic passage is bought for a survivor. "Summer Ice," set in a near future where "continental poverty" has replaced "continental wealth," is surprisingly moving and full of hope: need and lack bring an urban community true wealth and a young artist provides meaningful beauty. In the final entry, "Variations on a Theme," a gifted pianist out of place in space and time finds her way back home to a place out of space and time. Phillips seldom offers conclusions, but always offers revelation.
Part of the magic of Phillips's work is that it places the reader, full of past expectation and frequent disappointment, on the edge of anticipation. The reader inhales in wonder then fears the writer will stumble into the expected, that, at the turn of the next page, the metaphor of the story will turn mundane and disappoint. But, miraculously, Phillips never falls, never succumbs to the assumed, and at the end, the reader has never exhaled, but survived on the oxygen of originality.
There's a tenth remarkable story involved with IN THE PALACE OF REPOSE. Only two of its stories were previously published and the unknown author was literally discovered in a slush pile. Since the book's release, it has garnered spectacular praise (including, so far, reviews in Publishers Weekly, two reviews in Locus, and a starred review in Booklist) and evoked considerable awe. If Holly Phillips is not already the hottest new talent in the field, then she should be - and all on the basis of the impossibility of a small press debut collection of unpublished fiction from an unknown Canadian writer. She's breaking more than fictional windows. -- Paula Guran
(Review originally appeared in DarkEcho #42)
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Copyright © 2005 Paula Guran. All Rights