Monday, April 24, 2006

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan

Black Juice has recently made the leap from Australia to the US and beyond in the guise of young adult fiction. Clearly there is a huge gray area between ‘adult’ and ‘young adult’ fiction, and this collection of 10 short stories is found there. The stories are certainly age-appropriate for young adults, but they do not shy away from series issues and subjects, nor are they written in anyway that should not appeal to adults. This is the long way of saying that Black Juice is fiction for both adults and young adults; neither should be excluded.

One of the first things I noticed in reading these stories is the ‘foreignness’ of the them, at least from my US-centric view of the world. They are decidedly Australian and African in tone and even diction, which is both refreshing and awkward at times, but almost always rewarding. The stories of Black Juice are dark, never really entering a happy place – perfect for young adult fiction. The subjects are weighty – the conflicts of conformity, escape from oppression, death, etc. – and the impact can be powerful. Of the 10 stories, some are a bit less than memorable, while others will haunt.

The collection begins with “Singing My Sister Down”, a tale of a horrific public execution. The horror is not in blood and gore, there is neither of these, or the spectacle nature of the execution, but in the pure inevitability of it, contrasted by the strength and weaknesses of the condemned and her family, as they are with each other until the end.

“Red Nose Day” shows two assassins doing their work, killing clowns. It seems to me that clowns are one of the most horrifying creatures to children, and a story of their near indiscriminate execution from afar is appealing; but this is not that kind of light-hearted story. It is haunting story of inevitability, conformity and tragedy in life and death.

“Earthly Uses” shows us a different side of angels. “Yowlinin” is a darkly wonderful story of horrific monsters and an outcaste child. “House of Many” brings escape from religious conservatism for a young man. “Perpetual Light” is a journey to a funeral in a world that can only be described as reminiscent of the post-apocalypse world of Mad Max.

My favorite of the stories is the touching tale of “Sweet Pippit”, where a group of domesticated elephants search for their handler, who has been taken from them. I’m not sure I can put into words why this is my favorite, but the point of view from intelligent pachyderms was irresistible to me.

Short fiction can be difficult for me to enjoy, and Black Juice does suffer from some of this, but the haunting gems buried within are quality. Rating a collection of different stories causes difficulty – the best stories be will underrated and the lesser, overrated. With that caveat aside, on my 10-point rating scale, where below 5 is not recommended and 10 is unsurpassed, Black Juice rates a 7.

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