I don’t pay much attention to blurbs on book covers. The worst one are when the publisher has cherry-picked a list of adjectives from someone’s review, as if hearing that the New York Times thought a book is “inspiring, powerful, thought-provoking” is going to make me want to read it any more or less. Blurbs have little substance and are not helpful. Most of the time. But I’m going to start off by quoting the Library Journal blurb on the front cover of my edition of Memory & Dream:
De Lint moves gracefully through the borders between reality and imagination, weaving a powerful tale about the relationship between an artist and her work.
This is an exception that proves the rule. This is a blurb that matters. It counts, in all the right ways, and I’m hard pressed to think of a better way to describe Memory & Dream and the effect it has on a reader.
Charles de Lint is a pretty great writer. Firstly, of course, he’s Canadian—I am legally required to point that out. Secondly, he writes contemporary urban fantasy without any of the paranormal investigation tropes that are so popular these days. His books could be mistaken for literary fiction, if you got dropped on the head and just ignored the parts with magic in them. They are just at the edge of the spectrum of magical realism, where it starts to bleed over into pure fantasy.
In this particular case, de Lint tells a story across two time periods. Isabelle Copley—or Izzy, as she is known in her younger time—is an artist with a gift. Mentored by a reclusive and manic artist named Vincent Rushkin, Izzy learns how to create paintings that act as gateways, bringing across numena from another world who manifest in the forms she paints. But after her relationship with Rushkin sours, Izzy retreats, becomes Isabelle, and turns her back on this gift. Only five years after the suicide of her best friend does Isabelle start confronting the events of twenty years ago.
The title here is key: de Lint hints that Isabelle’s memory is not always reliable, that she has edited history to be easier to deal with. By telling the story across two time periods, we get to see two versions of Isabelle: the growing, blossoming artist who is struggling with her newfound ability; the older, more experienced woman who has been burned once (literally) and is reluctant to engage again on that level.
It’s viscerally disturbing, watching young Izzy fall prey to all sorts of perils. From the abusive nature of her mentorship under Rushkin to the creepy vibe in her relationship with John, Izzy seems to fall repeatedly into these situations where she is unable or unwilling to have agency. It’s interesting that in the times she does exercise her agency, pushes away Rushkin or John or rejects her ability to create numena, she almost always ends up regretting it.
I have to hand it to de Lint, because I don’t actually like Isabelle (or Izzy) all that much as a character. She doesn’t have much in the way of fierce determination or backbone—gumption, they’d probably call it in the old days—but instead tends to go along with the flow, even if it’s going to end badly. Nevertheless, de Lint’s skill as a writer means I can still sympathize with Isabelle. I understand why she is that way, why she reacts to these challenges in the way she does. I don’t like it, but I sympathize with it.
Because that’s what de Lint has managed to capture here: a simple but important truth, which is that life is hard. Creating is hard. Having responsibility for something external to oneself is hard.
I’m not much for the visual arts, despite having worked in a gallery for six of the last eight years. I did enjoy de Lint’s description of the technical parts of Isabelle’s creative process, however, as much as I liked hearing about Kathy and Alan’s literary endeavours. Creative people like this recur throughout de Lint’s books, and they always seem to be the ones able to pierce the veil and cross the void between worlds. According to de Lint, creativity is our direct line to our soul, and to our creator.
So in his portrayals of Isabelle and Kathy, Alan and Marisa, Jilly and Rolanda—and we mustn’t forget the numena either—de Lint examines the marks that creativity leaves on people. He depicts both the great joys and relief that creativity brings as well as the terrible doubts, the stress, the pain. Rushkin and his twisted numena, the very idea of consuming the spirits we create, alludes to the darkness in the core of every human being. Creativity allows us to tap into that darkness in a raw and powerful way, but it is not without its dangers. This is the problem Isabelle has, the fear that if she brings across more numena, she will fail them (like she failed Kathy…).
Layered atop these questions is the question of whether the numena are real. What is reality anyway? Is it being able to bleed and dream, having the “red crow,” as Cosette puts it? Or is Isabelle correct—are the numena real because she gave them a piece of herself in their making? And will they survive her own death? So many questions, none of which de Lint ever hands down a single, definitive answer. But this only makes the story that much more tantalizing. My interest was starting to flag towards the end (I think the book itself is a hundred pages too long), but I kept going, not out of a sense of duty to finish, but because I was still intrigued by this particular theme.
As with his previous books that I’ve read, Memory & Dream concerns a protagonist’s personal journey as it intersects with a larger external conflict. Isabelle must stop Rushkin. But to do that, she has to confront the barriers she has erected within herself. De Lint seems interested in how we construct our own realities, how we lie to ourselves or change our memories to suit us, and how we define ourselves: are we artists or painters, writers or authors—what labels do we use? Whereas in some of his novels the fantasy element is foregrounded, here the numena are companions, but they never steal the stage. This is a story about how we value and judge ourselves and our creations. It is very powerful. It’s not perfect; it’s a little long, and your mileage will vary when it comes to how much you like the protagonist. But it’s yet another example of why Charles de Lint is a fantastic voice in fantasy.