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Black Juice

Margo Lanagan

Gollancz, 2006, Hardback 230 pp, £8.99, ISBN 0575077816

If you’re planning to read this book, you might not want to read this review. If you aren’t, do.

A family who sing a daughter to her death; a young man who has to endure a terrifying ordeal in order to usher in the spring; a lost bride with paper shoes; a lad who has to face an angel to give his grandmother a decent burial and free himself from oppression. In many great novels it is a subsidiary character who can often have a profound effect on the reader – the companion, sibling or even an acquaintance of the protagonist, someone whose arc in the overall story touches the reader in unexpected ways – either by the suddenness of their absence or through a change in their lives. Black Juice is filled with scenes of the subsidiary character’s defining moment; the moments that turn a good novel into a great one. However Black Juice is not a novel but rather a collection of short stories, all of which reach out to the reader because they breathe beyond their limited page count, hinting of their part in a greater whole and all characterised by a rare intensity. These are glimpses of ten other worlds – worlds into which we are invited for a brief, pivotal, moment. No background information is given, we are only given precise and lucid details of events that are happening at that time.

As such each story feels like the middle of a greater whole, without a real beginning or end; although they have internal conclusions, the overall sense is that of time continuing outside the story space. This in turn makes the characters well rounded though fleetingly defined – you need to fill in the back stories for yourself and can only imagine what the future holds. Sometimes you need not even know the protagonist’s name or even if they are human, but you are drawn quickly into their environment, however otherworldly, and come to empathise with their situation. Lanagan expertly guides us through each tale, dropping mere hints as to the person or creature’s background, yet gives us a deep insight into their lives, rituals and societies. Where they do depart from a sustainable novel mould is in their use of the first person perspective to allow instant access into each world on offer. This means that explanation can be, for the main part, dispensed with because the perspective allows a precise and immediate viewpoint on events. It also creates a sense of ambiguity as to where and when each tale is set – the characters’ familiarity with their own environment and culture means any indications of time or place need to be derived rather than spelt out explicitly. The book’s great trick is to relieve the reader of any preconceptions leaving them to form the images, the background and the setting for themselves. Knowing any background information at all can subtly alter the reader’s perception of the tale. Lanagan lives in Australia and it is only as the book progresses that images of Australia seep into the reader’s consciousness. Because the tales give impressions of colonialism, wild animals, fantastical events or creatures, many of the stories could have been set in Africa, India or a parallel world. It is only the rare use of a specific word, in one instance “aboriginal”, which could pin down a location to Australia and even then, that assumption is dependent on the reader’s perception, not the author’s. This doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the book, quite the opposite in fact. Similarly, although this collection is marketed as children/young adult material the initial impression one feels is that these are anything of the sort. Again, knowledge of the book’s targeted audience does change the reader’s understanding of the characters and their motivations. It’s unfortunate that publishers have to be so definitive in their categorisation of a book’s suited age group or genre. Black Juice defies genre definition and doesn’t offer childish pursuits to the adult reader either.

All the stories are exemplary but perhaps the most outstanding is the first, telling the tale of an execution of a young woman. She simply has to walk across a tar pit and just remain there until the sticky black mire engulfs her, sucking her into its pitch-black depths. Her family are allowed to be present at her slow, agonising and excruciatingly inevitable demise, encouraging and aiding her to a better death. We know her crime, but her motives are never made clear. She remains both defiant and brave, eliciting much empathy from the reader despite our lack of understanding of the wider cultural picture and having only the perspective of a sympathetic observer. We know too how the various other members of her family have reacted to her crime, her punishment and are party to the emotions of all involved. It’s at once moving, sad and yet strangely uplifting.

Black Juice is a marvellous collection of tales and a remarkable read, don’t let its bookstore categorisation convince you otherwise. Savour these, don’t rush them.