Helen Marshall, The Migration (2019)

[This post was inspired by a series of workshops called the What If Consortium, organised by the writers Helen Marshall and Kim Wilkins of the University of Queensland and involving scholars and writers from all over the world. The aim of the project is to explore the concept of Story Thinking, which uses creative writing methods drawn from speculative fiction to help transdisciplinary teams imagine and find solutions for complex problems collaboratively and effectively. In preparation for the workshops I read some of Helen’s work, for which she has won (among other things) a World Fantasy Award. I quickly found that her novel The Migration might be read as offering a fine example of Story Thinking in action. The post is intended as a contribution to the cogitations of the What If Consortium; and it’s also intended to form part of a case for fantasy as a genre that can contribute as much to real-world problem solving as science fiction can, despite the tendency to forget about it when the affordances of speculative fiction are under discussion. Or is ‘solving’ the right word? I prefer ‘resolution’, I think, which pays attention to the dialogic processes which are an essential feature of collaborative enterprises, and gestures towards music as a model rather than mathematics. Any good conference, classroom discussion, workshop series or in-depth conversation should have a close affinity with a concert, though I have to admit there’s not much about music in what follows…

Please be warned that there are numerous spoilers in this post.]

Oxford is the birthplace of fantasy. Charles Dodgson wrote his Alice books there, surreal dream worlds that helped define the distinctive art of the twentieth century. Tolkien and Lewis met there and formed the Inklings, a reading and talking group which played midwife to the most influential fantasies of modern times: The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) and The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956). These books were written by scholars and reflect their interests, from Dodgson’s fascination with sophistry and riddles to Tolkien’s delight in ancient Northern European cultures, whose material and literary remains survive only in serendipitous fragments – including riddles – and which he painstakingly embeds in a rich new context, making them whole in the ultimate fulfilment of a scholar’s dreams. Scholarship sits lightly on the pages of these seminal fantasies: in the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of the messengers Hatta and Haigha, in the prefatory matter to The Fellowship of the Ring, in the textbooks used by the tutor Doctor Cornelius to instruct the future monarch Prince Caspian of Narnia in behaviour fit for a king. Oxford, where Dodgson, Tolkien and Lewis lived, is a city redolent of magic as well as of scholarship, with bizarre grotesques sprouting from its towers and spires and turrets, hidden gardens revealing themselves through the keyholes of old locked doors, a thousand waterways teeming with wildlife forming a maze in and around its streets, which get regularly flooded in periods of bad weather. It has urban myths aplenty, from the Underground Cathedral of Saint Giles, which can be entered via the steps to a Victorian toilet near the Martyrs’ Memorial, to the rumoured discovery of well-dressed skeletons in an underground brook near Christ Church Meadows.[1] And the city spawns new myths weekly – at least, it was still doing so when I last visited in 2019.

No wonder, then, if Oxford has continued to generate beguiling fantasies since Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien set off on their final journeys to another world. Many of these fantasies touch on themes which Tolkien and Lewis chose to ignore: the past understood as a deadly curse relating to toxic masculinity, as in Joan Aiken’s The Shadow Guests (1980); colonialism in Oxford’s museums, as partly acknowledged by Penelope Lively in The House in Norham Gardens (1974); the exclusion of women from much of the university’s history, and the careful replication of the British class system in Oxford’s colleges, as mimicked in the alternative Oxford of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (1995). It was a stroke of genius, then, for Helen Marshall to set her weird novel The Migration in the city where modern fantasy had its birth, as she charts the progression of what could well be the death of fantasy. In The Migration all the elements I’ve listed combine to create a peculiarly modern narrative: from medieval scholarship (here a historian’s investigations into the science of the Black Death) to riddles (what is the mysterious ailment that is killing young people all over the world?) to myths, legends and fantastic stories, as the ailment sparks off wild rumours only marginally less bizarre than its possibly ancient causes and modern symptoms. Set all these elements against the backdrop of a world which is falling apart because of the climate catastrophe and you have a potent reinvention of Oxford fantasy, a love-letter to Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien which is also a rallying cry for a revolutionary new way of seeing the world, and an urgent warning to take collective action before it’s too late, if it isn’t already.

Marshall’s Oxford is seen through the eyes of a teenage stranger. For Sophie Perella from Toronto, the buildings, history and habits of Oxford are just as strange as the strange events breaking out all over the globe. She shares her foreignness with the boy Cosmo in Aiken’s The Shadow Guests, who is from Australia but whose name proclaims him a citizen of the planet; with the Ugandan scholar John Sempebwa in Lively’s The House in Norham Gardens, who mournfully teaches fourteen-year-old Oxford girl Clare Mayfield two or three things about British colonial history; with the young Greek refugee Anna in Paul Kearney’s The Wolf in the Attic (2016), whose first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war makes 1920s Oxford look like a different universe – until she learns it harbours horrors of its own. Oxford for them is already weird before weird things start happening to them. Apart from anything else, they are young and Oxford is old, an embodiment of the piled-up generations which helped to construct the dangerous world they now inhabit. Sophie’s youthfulness in Marshall’s book is constantly reaffirmed by the fact that it’s written in the present tense, a tense never used for fiction by Lewis, Tolkien or Carroll, a tense that stresses the unpredictable nature of the story we’re reading. Past tense tells us that someone at least comes out of the story alive, that what happened is safely over, done and dusted, gone but not forgotten. Present tense tells us that the narrative voice could be the voice of the dead, speaking perhaps out of the ruins not only of their own life but of the whole cultural system that produced them. It implies that what we’re reading about is going on right here and now, even as we read. It’s also the preferred tense of Young Adult fiction. For the young, almost anything they come across is a surprise, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes shocking. Present tense ensures that we, like the young, have no idea what will happen next or how it will end.

Death is present from the opening pages of Marshall’s novel, and with it a sense that the nature of death is one of the many things in the world we don’t have a grip on. In a brief prologue, Sophie recognises the domination of her life by death when she recalls her games of playing dead as a very young child. Sophie tells us she played these games ‘before I knew what dead meant – what it really meant’, she adds (p. 1); but the rest of the book is dedicated to erasing any certainties we might have had as to what really means. The word’s meaning remains elusive throughout the prologue. ‘By the time I was older,’ Sophie tells us, ‘I understood more of the way the world worked, but it still wasn’t real dead I was playing at. It was something else. Something mysterious and terrifying. Like kissing a boy for the first time’ (p. 2). When her younger sister Kira joins in the games of playing dead, Sophie finds it deeply uncomfortable to see her sprawled out lifeless beside her and tickles the child till she moves and giggles, breaking the spell. In this way the comfort of a faux recovery eases the terror of perceiving death as a final ending. But by the end of the prologue, death has got caught up with the idea of memory – traces in the mind of what came before – which itself threatens to lose its function, as Sophie’s recollections of her life in Toronto begin to fade in another enactment of the dying process. The prologue ends with a plaintive acknowledgement of open-endedness. As an older child, Sophie tells us, she thought of death as ‘the feeling of rest after a long journey’ (p. 8). But her journey from Toronto to Oxford did not bring her rest. As a result of what happened next, she goes on, she now thinks of death as a ‘doorway’ and doesn’t wish to know what’s on the other side (p. 8). Portals to Narnia can be read as doorways to death, as the many doorways in The Last Battle (1956) disturbingly drive home. The prologue informs us that Sophia’s doorway leads nowhere so comforting or stable as a land of instructive lions, articulate beavers and walking trees.

From the beginning, then, Marshall’s book announces its preoccupation with questions about which Lewis and Tolkien had strong convictions: with the destination, for example, of the individual human identity after the death of the body; or with the problem of how far the past impinges on the present, to what extent its traces retain some semblance of life, how far they remain entangled in and relevant to the struggles of the living. These questions acquire a personal urgency for Sophie when her sister Kira falls ill. The girl suffers from an unknown condition which is rapidly spreading, jumping from child to child, from youth to youth across the world with unnerving speed, like a coronavirus that singles out the young instead of the old (the novel was written, of course, before the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic). It’s this condition, called JI2, that sends Sophie’s family from Toronto to Oxford, where cutting-edge research is being carried out on treatments for it (the temptation to mention AstraZeneca is irresistible). Sophie, then, heads to Oxford in a quest for answers; but what she finds is only more questions, about the past as well as the present. The treatment, as it turns out, is not effective – at least, not effective in certain crucial respects. Sophie’s world has no more certainties in it, and none of its occupants has much in the way of faith: in religion, in their fellow humans, or indeed in science, which has claimed in the past to find sure means to avert disaster. All conventional terms and familiar concepts have been destabilized, and the city of Oxford itself is vulnerable, its network of waterways rendered treacherous by the increasing frequency of deadly storms and torrential rain.

The clash of past and present is everywhere in Sophie’s new life in Oxford. Cut off from the past – her father stayed behind in Toronto, as did her best friend Jaina – Sophie has to rebuild her network of relationships almost from scratch, beginning with Aunt Irene, an Oxford historian with whom she and her family are staying. Irene’s specialism in history is death: the Black Death, to be precise, which swept through the world in the Fourteenth Century, wiping out populations on a scale unequalled since. And Irene’s research has direct relevance to the new pandemic of youth. Traces of the same hormone have been found in the corpses of the Black Death’s victims and the victims of JI2. Could the fourteenth-century plague and JI2 have something in common? Certainly both have called into question previous certainties, faiths, and social structures; and as Sophie begins to assist her aunt with her research, she soon finds herself empathising with the terrified victims of the earlier infestation. Whether or not there is a scientific link between her time and that one, JI2 represents for Sophie a reawakening of the fourteenth-century plague, just as the calamitous weather of the twenty-first century represents a reawakening of nature in retributive fury at the accumulated centuries of human abuse. Even the weather of the fourteenth century, we learn, was correspondingly calamitous, and its extreme events may have triggered (so Sophie speculates) some momentous change in human DNA, as they have again.

St Bartlemas Chapel, Oxford

Aunt Irene’s college embodies (and in this book about changing bodies the word is apt) the collision of old and new to perfection. Anachronistically known as New College it is in fact very old, having been founded in the fourteenth century when the plague was at its height. Dedicated to the meeting of young and old – undergraduates seeking instruction from established scholars – it is also the explosive meeting point for the past pandemic and its modern equivalent. ‘Did you know,’ Aunt Irene asks Sophie, as if the teenager could somehow have acquired an older woman’s knowledge through her traumatic experiences of disease and migration, ‘Did you know that most of the quads in the College used to be burial pits for plague victims?’ (p. 47). There are, in fact, as Sophie realises, ‘bodies underneath us right now’, telling a story of an old calamity that might unlock the secrets of the new one. It’s from a base in New College that the young people of Oxford rise up in protest against the social restrictions that are being increasingly imposed on them as the pandemic spreads. At one point in the novel Sophie follows the New College students to a party in a graveyard, in defiance of the curfew. The graveyard belongs to a little chapel known as Saint Bartlemas, in East Oxford, where New College students often sought solace when the Black Death was raging, hoping for bodily regeneration through the intervention of the relics there, which included a piece of Saint Bartholomew’s skin (the saint was martyred by being flayed). At this chapel, where the students and scholars gathered annually in medieval times on May Day and Ascension Day, occurs a key moment in the conflict between the infected young and their censorious elders: a chaotic fight between police and undergraduates sparked off by an act of police violence. Several students die in the fight and one policeman. Later, it’s the records of one of the undergraduates who died that confirm for Sophie exactly what is happening to the diseased. A sympathetic doctor hands her the dead boy’s medical records, and Sophie’s reading of this archival document links up with her part-time researches for Aunt Irene to bring past and present fully alive with unprecedented clarity. Aunt Irene’s investigations into the Black Death and the deaths of modern university students place that ancient institution, New College, at the epicentre of the revolutions and evolutions of the twenty-first century.

But Marshall’s Oxford is a site of industrial as well as intellectual labour. There have been long-standing tensions between Town and Gown – between local inhabitants and the intellectuals who gravitate to the University from all over the world – and these tensions are invariably understood in terms of class. Sophie herself occupies a space between the two populations. She attends a private school for girls and lives in the house of an academic, but the boy she falls in love with is a local boy from a half-derelict working-class estate, whose previous girlfriend – also local, also working-class – was an Oxford student who died of JI2. Sophie’s ties to the Town have a geographical, emotional and architectural centre, just like her ties to the Gown or university. Her first trip with her academic Aunt is not to a medieval site – though there are plenty such visits at later points in the book – but to the neighbourhood of the former cement works at Shipton on Cherwell, where stands ‘a tower, at least a hundred feet tall, jutting into the sky’ (p. 13): the cement works chimney. Kira mistakes this at first for a castle, having been prepared by her mother back home in Toronto to expect an England full of castles. Aunt Irene promises to take her to see a proper castle – the one at nearby Warwick – but the cement works chimney has more in the way of history than any decaying military fortification. It’s an integral part, for instance, of Irene’s own past – the place where she met a man who was perhaps her lover, ‘a quarry engineer who sometimes did freelance work assessing dig sites for the School of Archaeology’ (p. 14). This half-forgotten love story invokes the many points of convergence between Town and Gown in Oxford’s history, their symbiotic relationship despite the tensions between them. And it invokes for Sophie the disruption of her personal history by the onset of the pandemic. In Toronto she had always assumed that her future would involve a university education. Uprooted from Canada at a time when the world is waking up to a new Black Death, accompanied by unprecedented storms and temperature changes, such comfortable expectations have quickly come to seem beyond the pale. As a result, the ruins of the cement works look more like the pictures she is painting in her mind of the world’s future, stripped of its human population, quickly reclaimed by vegetation, its soundscape dominated by the calls of birds – like the ‘fantastic noise’ made by a flock of starlings that suddenly materialises near the abandoned factory, twisting itself into ‘complicated patterns and ghostly shapes’ as if to sketch out an unreadable prediction of things to come (and the incident clearly invokes the Roman habit of reading omens in the flights of birds) (p. 16). But its resemblance to a ruined castle means that the chimney is also tied to the past, or to an imagined alternative past which is always invading the present in fantastic stories, as doors open into it from wardrobes or pictures, or figures from it come striding or stumbling into the modern landscape, as in the work of Susan Cooper. And it is a brave and impetuous act by Sophie herself that brings the chimney back to life, rendering it urgently relevant despite its derelict condition.

It’s to the chimney that Sophie decides to bring the corpse of her sister after she has died of JI2 – stealing her from the hospital mortuary and smuggling her out of the city in her Aunt’s requisitioned Renault. It’s in the chimney that the body undergoes a wonderfully unsettling metamorphosis, reminiscent at first of the pupa stage in an insect’s development. It’s at the chimney that Sophie gets to know the Town boy, Bryan, an amateur engineer who becomes her lover, just as an older engineer became Irene’s; and it’s there that she learns to let the transmuted Kira go, to stop trying to keep her as the child she once was, the child she is no longer. The chimney even becomes a kind of chute or birth canal leading from this life to the next, as the resurrected, changed and now airborne Kira batters her way like a giant moth towards the circle of light at its distant apex. Finally, the chimney is the place where Sophie and Bryan plot together to acquire for themselves the secret of flight, building a powered paraglider or paramotor with which they hope to make contact with the freshly-fledged dead, the youthful angels of the climate apocalypse, Kira among them. The chimney, then, like New College, is a brooding and birthing place where the future can be germinated from the seeds of now.

It’s the place, too, where the impossible happens, taking over from New College as the central site of Oxford fantasy. This new version of the impossible is forged from the kinds of technical ingredients largely ignored by the scholarly Inklings: a petrol engine, a foam seat fitted with recycled seatbelts, the ‘giant steel circle of welded pipes’ which forms the paramotor’s frame (p. 318) – a witty homage to Tolkien’s One Ring, with the chimney as its Barad-dûr. The paramotor becomes Sophie’s obsession, just as the Ring becomes Frodo’s, and a similar aura of destructiveness clings to it, reinforced by the fact that it’s powered by fossil fuels. But it’s also an emblem of something like hope out of despair. Aunt Irene considers this kind of hope – the hope of an afterlife, the hope of a new phase of evolution that might involve some kind of resurrection from the dead – as no more than ‘magical thinking’ (p. 304), an anachronistic state of mind which might have been suitable for the fourteenth-century victims of the Black Death, because of the different ‘conceptual schema’ by which they lived (p. 303), but has lost its validity since the Millennium. Sophie and Bryan, however, who grew up with an easy familiarity with the miracles of science and technology, see magical thinking as a blueprint for action. Bugs undergo astonishing changes every day, resurrecting themselves from the tomb of the chrysalis or pupa. The laws of physics keep being rewritten, as the impossible proves possible in each successive generation. Technology shows itself capable of replicating some of the bizarrest actions of the natural world – such as the flying technique of the bumble bee, as imitated by ‘Herr Cederberg’ in the short story by Karin Tidbeck.[2] And the cement works chimney might just be the channel or conduit which will take human thought and action, if not science and technology, to a whole new level.

Marshall’s book, then, has something interesting to say about the impulse to indulge ourselves in fantasy and the fantastic, the art of the impossible. What happens to Sophie in Oxford has been prepared for in her mind by her self-immersion in often old-fashioned fantasy texts. Her idea of England is shaped in Toronto by her reading of books posted to her by the Oxford-based scholar Aunt Irene: The Ladybird Book of British History, for instance (p. 3), or Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (1965-77), which deals with modern children (modern, that is, in the 60s and 70s) who are precipitated into a sudden clash between old and new, the ordinary world and a magical otherworld, for enormous stakes (p. 3). Cooper wrote The Dark Is Rising in America, although she was born and raised in Britain, so the series represents the intersection between cultures that will feature throughout Marshall’s book. Sophie also reads The Chrysalids (1955) at school in Canada, a book about a post-apocalyptic America written by the British author John Wyndham, whose title hints at insectile metamorphoses of the kind that are happening again in Sophie’s England (p. 28). A few pages later we learn more about Sophie’s reading. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), which describes a woman’s breakdown in fantastic terms and anticipates the breakdown of Sophie’s mother at one point in the novel (which is in fact a breaking down and reconstruction of her assumptions, her ‘schemata’ as Aunt Irene might call them) (p. 30). Harry Potter, whose schooldays anticipate the bizarre educational experiences of the students of New College, including their cultural war against the older generation and its police. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), comforting in a way The Migration refuses to be, though Marshall’s book freely acknowledges the necessity of comfort reading and therapeutic storytelling (p. 39). Fairy tales about appalling family crises such as Hansel and Gretel (p. 40). Peter Pan (book version, 1911), about a boy who learns to fly exactly as Kira and Sophie do (p. 160). I’ve already hinted at the presence in the novel of the Narnia books (that reference to death as a portal in the prologue), and one element of those books features prominently in it: animals (in this case bugs or birds) who share their thoughts with human beings. The novel swarms, in fact, with fantasy references, and in each case the fantasy in question has direct application to Sophie’s situation, preparing her for the wonders and horrors of the world of now. Fantasy provides her with schemata for a time of radical, painful or appalling change, despite or perhaps precisely because of its roots in the past.

One of the great moments in Marshall’s novel occurs at the point when Sophie confronts her Aunt Irene with some searching questions about her attitude to history and its bearing on the present. Sophie is almost certain that the young people such as her sister who have died of JI2 live on after death as themselves in some discernible way. Aunt Irene has spent her life studying a Medieval civilisation that believed the same thing; but for her it is ‘dangerous… to think in that way’, since ‘magical thinking’ means ‘you might do something stupid’ (p. 303), such as throwing away your only chance at adult life in a suicidal leap of faith simply because you believe that something better might come after. Aunt Irene sustains her argument with scientific discourse, as she insists that Sophie’s hopes for her sister are ill-founded:

The structure of the human brain is delicate. It can’t survive the kind of trauma those bodies are going through. So whatever lives on, even if it’s biologically alive, it isn’t the same. Don’t you think I want to believe as well that something continues on? But that’s false hope, Sophie. It’s a trick. (p. 303)

Her case against a belief in resurrection is much the same as the case an atheist might make against the delusions of a passionate believer. Yet it also echoes the arguments of the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis when he expostulated against the visions of human evolution propounded by the visionary science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. In Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and The Star Maker (1937), Lewis contended – books which describe the future history of humanity, covering thousands and even millions of years – the human body, mind and social order undergo changes so extreme that the new life forms these books describe can no longer accurately be called human. They have lost (Lewis thought) their soul. The fact that the same reasoning can be applied both by a believer and an unbeliever suggests that the territory each occupies is not as alien as one might think. In both cases, resistance to radical ideas and the different schemata that inform them can be a screen for deeply-rooted conservatism born of timidity: fear of difference, fear of revolution, fear of extreme corporeal change.

But Sophie has scientific reasoning on her side too. ‘That’s not how history works, though, is it?’ she argues (p. 304). ‘We don’t get to put things back to how they should be because it makes life easier to understand’. In any case, she adds, the past was as full of traumatic incidents as the present: ‘There isn’t safety in the way things were’. The Black Death is proof enough of that, or the massacres and migrations that have featured throughout human history. ‘So what if there’s an answer here,’ she concludes, ‘something radical and new’ about the changes undergone by the new plague’s victims?  Aunt Irene’s response to this unsettling suggestion may itself be conditioned by biology rather than reason. ‘Her eyes slide away from mine,’ Sophie observes; ‘For a moment I felt she almost grasped my line of thought but now she’s shifting away, her mind rejecting what I told her, antibodies pushing out a foreign bacterium’ (p. 305). The older woman is protecting herself against the unfamiliar, as people often do, not yet ready to ‘let it break through [her] defences, […] find a way to use it’. At the same time, Irene is a reader of fantasy and the fantastic, with Susan Cooper and John Wyndham on her shelves at home. She has not yet learned to accommodate the new, but that does not mean she never will. Like Sophie herself, Aunt Irene has been prepared for radical change by the kind of fiction she enjoys in her spare time.

Sophie’s scientific reasoning is akin to faith. As she prepares for her first desperate flight in the paramotor, the young woman recognises her half-baked plan to make some sort of contact in the sky with the newly-evolved survivors of JI2 as the definitive act of a true believer: ‘It is the only chance I have to see Kira again, even if it is a long shot. A leap of faith. I don’t know what comes next but I have to try’ (p. 319). She is spurred by the fact that she herself has now contracted JI2, which means she is already affiliated or committed to the metamorphosis her sister underwent before her. As the plague began to spread, the older generation started to think of the young as in some sense a different species, threatening the precious cultural inheritance they had hoped to pass down to their children and grandchildren; threatening, in fact, the survival of the world they thought they knew. For Sophie, by contrast, the infected young may carry the seeds of knowledge of the time to come, a wisdom she yearns for, as her name suggests. And sure enough, her desperate flight into the eye of a storm helps her gain that knowledge. In a lyrical passage, she finds Kira’s memories in her head along with her own, as well as Kira’s premonitions of the drowned world of the future, the world that will inevitably follow the melting of the polar icecaps and the onset of extreme weather incidents. It is a world for which the metamorphosed young will be fully adapted. The resurrected, airborne Kira ‘has been made for the storm – not just to survive, but to flourish in it. […] And the earth is passing away from me, the earth has hatched me. It’s hatched both of us. I can feel her closer now’ (p. 361). Myth enthusiasts may detect a reference here to the egg that hatched the twins Castor and Pollux and their sister Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen is a paradox, like the victims of JI2; she both brought about the fall of Troy and bequeathed to future generations the magnificent story of that fall, the ‘terrible beauty’ described by Yeats, somehow liberating as well as tragic.[3] Sophie’s leap of faith is both terrible and beautiful, committing her body, like that of her sister, to the next ‘gyre’ or cycle of the world’s existence.

The book ends as it began, with the act of playing dead; but in the final chapter Sophie’s childhood games are relayed to us through the memories of her mother, now newly recovered from the breakdown brought on by her younger daughter’s death. Like Sophie, Char has always been haunted by the potential link between playing dead and ‘actual’ death. Each time she found the child Sophie acting out her own mortality, a ‘terrible fear would come over me that this time, maybe it wasn’t just playing, maybe it was real’ (p. 379). But in this final chapter, Sophie’s death is no game. The paramotor (a trivial object designed for pleasure – a means of playing with death) has crashed to the ground on its maiden flight and broken her body, and Sophie herself is about to undergo the post-mortem metamorphosis of all JI2 victims. Fantasy has been revealed once again as mental preparation for traumas to come.

But for Marshall, fantasy is more than this; especially experimental fantasy, of the sort that refuses to tread the path of slavish imitation – like The Lord of the Rings, whose familiarity sometimes makes us lose sight of just how original Tolkien’s text was at the time of writing. Sophie herself embodies such experimental fantasy, having had an ‘aura of unpredictability’ since birth, in her mother’s eyes, arriving ten weeks before her due date with bluish skin, yet surviving against all odds in an incubator and emerging stronger for the ordeal. Unpredictable fantasy – the sort whose ending you cannot guess when you start reading – can help us understand and resist brutality of various kinds, as is hinted at in the name of the doctor who wishes to take Sophies corpse for experimental treatment in his lab (he is ‘Lane Ballard’, a clear allusion to the dark visions of the future hatched by the former trainee doctor, J. G. Ballard, in his so-called ‘space fiction’). But experimental fantasy also enables us to confront the impossible, inhabit it, make it our home. Magical thinking gave Char hope in her early days as a mother, as she waited to find out if her premature baby would emerge from the incubator dead or alive. ‘“Live,” I whispered as I looked at you behind the glass, “please, live”’ (p. 383). But, she adds in the present as she breathes the same words while waiting to see if her broken daughter will live or die, ‘it doesn’t always work like that, does it? Only in fairy tales does it work like that’. Baby Sophie obeyed the logic of fairy tales in her childhood – the ‘magical thinking’ they encourage; but the laws of chance, Char thinks, make it unlikely this will happen again.

Sure enough, teenage Sophie doesn’t live; or rather, she ‘really’ dies. But fairy tales can be as unpredictable as any other kind of fiction, especially if you turn to non-European storytelling traditions. An Egyptian fairy tale known to Char, which Sophie used to read to Kira, tells of a heron who rebuilt the world after the Deluge, the universal flood which is also described in the Old Testament and classical legend. This tale told by a child to her sister offers a model for seeing a way out of the climate crisis: a way that involves stepping sideways from one form of life – the dominant form of our time, the life of human beings under late capitalism – into another whose schemata are unfamiliar to us, as unfamiliar as the notion of a heron as the world’s creator. Sophie and Kira take that sideways step or leap, with trepidation and excitement. In tracing their transition to another schema, Marshall’s book refashions Oxford, the birthplace of the fantastic, as the birthplace of a new fantastic, better suited to our needs at a time of accelerated global change. Readers of all generations can learn from this refashioning.


[1] Marshall alludes obliquely to both these myths in her novel. I leave it to you to spot the references!

[2] Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath (2012), pp. 41-44.

[3] See Yeats, ‘Easter 1916’, ‘Leda and the Swan’, ‘The Second Coming’, etc.