August 16, 2018
(++++) THE ROAD TO TOMORROW
The Land of Yesterday. By K.A. Reynolds. Illustrations by Jensine Eckwall. Harper. $16.99.
A poetic, beautifully written novel of genuine sensitivity whose only significant flaw is that its issues may be too “adult” for the preteen audience at which it is aimed, K.A. Reynolds’ The Land of Yesterday is one of those rare books that fit neatly within their genre while repeatedly bursting its seams. In this case, that means expanding the genre – of fantasy/adventure – in ways that are sure to make the many other entries in the field pale by comparison for young readers sensitive and thoughtful enough to find themselves lost in Reynolds’ world building and her lovely prose.
Reynolds in fact has a firm grasp of the genre: this is a quest tale, a repair-a-broken-family tale, a story of the place where imagination and reality intersect. It is also a through-the-rabbit hole story that is well aware of being what it is: “Many books about magical rabbit holes existed, and Cecilia had read them all.” Cecilia is the book’s protagonist; her full name is Cecilia Andromeda Dahl, a moniker that quite deliberately calls up images of starscapes and is also a sly reference to Roald Dahl – that would be the Dahl of Matilda more than the Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The family name also makes possible the wonderful notion of becoming a “paper Dahl” – one important theme here involves the ways in which paper and writing and real life intersect and transform each other into a mutuality of wonder, with Cecilia at one point being described as “the Daughter of Paper and Tears.”
Reynolds names her characters splendidly. Cecilia’s father is Aubergine Illustrium Dahl, being not only filled with light (another important theme, to which Illustrium refers) but also associated through his name with a dark purple, eggplant-like color (aubergine). Cecilia’s mother is Mazarine Ignoscentia Dahl, with her color (mazarine is a very deep blue, almost black, the color of the hair of both mother and daughter) being highly significant – as is her middle name, which implies lack of knowledge (a portmanteau of “ignorance” and “science”). Reynolds offers the names in dollops of authorial communication: there is no single page presenting them, and Reynolds never explains their significance directly, allowing their euphoniousness alone to speak for them if readers choose not to delve more deeply into their meanings.
And then there is Cecilia’s brother, Celadon Ignatius Dahl. Celadon is a jade-green color and also refers to pottery, which is inherently breakable, which encapsulates Cecilia’s brother all too well: early in the book, he dies (this is not a sweetness-and-light novel) when he falls down the steps, because Cecilia broke a banister knob and did not repair it as she had promised she would. This makes Cecilia responsible for Celadon’s death and all that follows – including Mazarine’s departure for the Land of Yesterday to try to recapture Celadon, or at least stay with him.
Why did Cecilia not make the repair? She thought, or hoped, that the house would do so itself. The house is named Widdendream, another marvelously evocative-sounding word that also has a real meaning: it is an old Scottish term for mental confusion, madness or frenzy, which is exactly what the self-aware and initially benevolent Widdendream exhibits when first Celadon and then Mazarine have gone.
The Land of Yesterday is so rich in references and cross-references that it constantly teeters on the edge of, Ouroboros-like, consuming itself. But it never does. Again and again, Reynolds, with apparently offhanded grace, throws in another small bit of delight: a passing reference to a hamster named Professor Rick Von Strange; the invented word “parchmentify” to explain how a character is (for better or worse) losing human solidity and becoming paper-like; a view of a place where “tarnished watches frozen in time, wedding rings with bony fingers still attached, and swarms of lost baby teeth drifted by”; an observation that the sun was “the shade of fresh orange juice”; languages consisting solely of question marks or of great gusts of wind – the richness of this book is truly wonderful. Some of its references are clearly for adults, such as the one in which a balloon landing leaves the passengers “shaken and definitely stirred” – a reference to the famous James Bond line about martinis and a subtle reminder that Ian Fleming also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which itself is echoed in some of Cecilia’s magical travels. Indeed, the subtlety of The Land of Yesterday is more likely to be its undoing than any of its oddities, such as the major plot-structural importance of daisies and of Cecilia’s hair (whose color is mazarine, as is Mazarine’s; but Cecilia’s hair has a mind of its own and is a significant character in the narrative). Hopefully many young readers will pick up on Reynolds’ rethinking of elements of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. And hopefully at least some young readers (and adults, who really should read this book to find out just how good a novel allegedly for preteens can be) will note the meaningfulness of Cecilia’s encounter with the Little Prince, which Reynolds emphasizes in her super-subtle way by having Cecilia mention at one point that she “once resided happily at 2734 Saint-Exupéry Way” and by later having Cecilia discover words written to the boy by “your friend, A.” on “1st August, 1944,” the day after Saint-Exupéry is believed to have died after disappearing in his unarmed plane on a wartime reconnaissance mission.
All these thoughts and references and cross-references are a lot for a book, any book, to contain, much less to juggle with the skill with which Reynolds juggles them. It is perhaps not surprising that the workmanlike illustrations by Jensine Eckwall detract from the narrative instead of adding to it: the full-page ones render the marvels mundane, although the small ones that introduce the chapters are unobtrusive enough. It is words, and the pictures they produce in readers’ minds, that truly matter here. What ultimately happens to Cecilia, even before The Land of Yesterday winds to its thoroughly satisfying conclusion, is that “hurt and love and loss and friendship and laughter and thankfulness thrummed as one new emotion inside her being.” And so will they, or it, within the being of any reader, of any age, who is fortunate enough to accompany Reynolds to the marvels of The Land of Yesterday and then onward to now and beyond.