Thursday, October 23, 2014

Conjured, by Sarah Beth Durst

I guess it must be the season subconsciously influencing me to pick spooky books. Or maybe there's a dark magic spell influencing all the authors I like to write spooky books. The last Sarah Beth Durst book I read was Vessel, which was a great desert adventure fantasy. Conjured is something entirely different, and I couldn't put it down.

First line: "Your name is Eve. Remember that."

Main characters who have forgotten everything about their past are always fun. The mystery of identity has to be the central mystery of everyone's life. So a character trying to piece herself together from a very few clues and dreams is always compelling and sympathetic. Said character instantly becomes more interesting when she can do odd magical things without knowing why. Suspense is added when she doesn't know who is telling the truth or who she can trust, and when everyone around her seems pretty terrified of something awful happening to her.

Conjured has all these excellent building blocks and out of them Durst creates a fascinating, terrifying, heartwrenching, living, breathing tale of love and freedom and what it means to be a person. Eve doesn't know how to undo a seatbelt, can't remember that she licked jelly donut off her fingers last week, doesn't know why the agent she's supposed to call Malcolm makes her feel safe and the one called Aunt Nicki doesn't like her. But out of all her emptiness her personality shines. She is creating herself before our eyes with every choice she makes. She chooses to cooperate, to pretend to be normal, but as "Malcolm" and "Aunt Nicki" introduce her into the world, her choices broaden. Particularly when she meets Zach at the library. (I really liked Zach.)

The visions that may or may not be pieces of her past are excellent creepy carnival scenes, textured with colour and scent and emotion. At first they're so cryptic they make no sense, but as the images build they start to hint at their own story. Like Eve, we're given all the puzzle pieces but it's hard to put them together without knowing what they're supposed to look like.

I just went to Goodreads to get the link for this book, and I was surprised by some of the negative reviews, but I can understand them. You have to be patient with this kind of narration: it's frustrating to spend half the book not knowing what's going on—but that's the frustration Eve is living through, so for me it created empathy and suspense.

The writing is beautiful. Durst uses all her senses in her descriptions, and she has surprising and apt metaphors. I love how her magic is wondrous and beautiful even when it's underlain with horror.

Another excellent Halloween read, and I guess that's why pumpkins seem appropriate. Maple pumpkin pie, I think, another invention of my daughter's that I didn't get to try because I'm a five-hour flight away.

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