It’s no secret that I love stories about storytelling. Similarly, as much as I love a good action-packed epic, slow stories have their own unique virtues. Close Your Eyes: A Fairy Tale is such a slow story about stories—and in particular, how the stories we tell about ourselves and one another shape our choices in life. Chris Tomasini uses the backdrop of fifteenth-century Europe and crafts a small, memorable cast of characters. I enjoyed the time I spent in this world and mostly enjoyed the story even though its coda confers sour notes, for me, to its themes. Disclosure: The author provided me with a review copy.
More a frame story for a series of vignettes, Close Your Eyes bounces around the first decades of the fifteenth century. Europe is at war. (OK, when isn’t Europe at war?) After decades of papal schism, there’s a new ecclesiastical sheriff in town. And in a small, fictional kingdom named Gora, its heartbroken widower monarch wanders the halls of his castle. Our narrator, Samuel, is a little person and a court jester. He writes to us about his former companions at the castle, including a storyteller named Tycho and a cook named Agnieszka. Samuel laments his own lack of literary ability, but he is determined to muddle through to do justice to the events he wants to share. As Samuel bounces from story to story, he seems to be searching for meaning, trying to understand not only why Tycho left Gora but how he himself can move on in the face of all the change he has endured in recent years.
Don’t expect a ton of action or even dialogue here—the book is strictly epistolary, mostly description, yet this works well with the story structure and conceits. Tomasini’s primary challenge is conveying as much of the wider world of Gora/Europe in the 1430s as he can given the limitations of Samuel’s own knowledge. Samuel’s ignorance is useful at times, for it helps Tomasini restrict the reader’s field of vision in interesting and narratively significant ways; at other times, it can be a hindrance. That’s no doubt why Samuel includes excerpts from Tycho’s journals, along with letters from the disgraced bishop dispatched to Gora by Pope Martin V. Through these different perspectives, mediated by Samuel’s curatorial presence always lingering over our shoulder, we start to see what’s going on.
This is predominantly a story about the way that love and grief are intertwined. As one loses one’s loves, grief solidifies from an abstraction to a constant companion. King Pawel is, of course, the most overt example in this book, but we see it reflected in other characters as well. Each of the chapters of Close Your Eyes meditates, in some way, on how we love, why we love, or what we might do for love.
For the most part, I enjoyed Samuel’s stories. The foolishness of Beauvais. The rambunctious flirtatiousness of Tycho. The confident faithfulness of Agnieszka. Tomasini’s characters are just a tiny bit larger than life in a way that makes them leap off the page, keeping things interesting in spite of the constraints of the epistolary form. Close Your Eyes is an easy book to read.
Alas, I didn’t like the ending—or to be specific, the epilogue. Let’s see if I can talk about it without getting into spoiler territory.
Samuel’s final part of his epilogue is a meditation on his own loneliness and lack of romantic or sexual connection, contrasted by Tycho’s almost farcical prowess in the bedroom and Agnieszka’s successful, apparently happy marriage. He declares, “I can still write that I have never known love in my own life, only its absence.” I think he’s wrong.
In the same section, Samuel recoils from the idea that Princess Alexandra might be doomed to a similar fate, that her unrequited love for another might result in her unwittingly following in Samuel’s footsteps. He says, “surely the pains of unrequited love are preferable to the hollow ache of a chest void of any emotion at all.”
I think it’s very apparent from the pages that precede this epilogue that Samuel’s life has been steeped in love, and from what he utters after those words, he will continue to be surrounded by love into the old age he imagines for himself. That his love isn’t the romantic, all-consuming fire of the tales he has been raised on is irrelevant—it’s still love. For the book to end on such a trite and arophobic idea that a life without romantic love is lesser is very disappointing. It’s also so avoidable—seriously, had I stopped reading prior to this very last section, I would have finished the book thinking, “Well, that’s a tidy and sensible ending.”
So in that sense, the book in its final moments let me down. Nevertheless, Close Your Eyes is lovingly crafted, clever, cozy. I enjoyed the afternoons I spent with it and would read more from Tomasini.