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Sunday, 13 January 2013

Obscura Burning by Suzanne Van Rooyen

The Sunday Review

Science fiction has never been my thing and I'm far too long in the tooth to be reading Young Adult novels, but there is something about Suzanne Van Rooyen.

The review system at Amazon is so flawed that if you're searching for good writing, to find some, you have to be lucky and by interviewing Suzanne back in June last year on The Wizard's Cauldron, I felt as if I had landed the forecast in the Derby.

An MA in Music, a member of YAtopia, a thinker, an innovator and a prodigious, two books-a-week reader, Suzanne knows a thing or too about literature.

She's also the type of writer who thinks about her work - sometimes overthinks - I've known her erase three weeks worth of writing as if it never existed at all because of a plot flaw.

A pedigree like this creates quality books. 
A book like Obscura Burning.

Now, I'm no expert on YA, as I have said - and this is very, very YA. 

All the main characters are teenage. All the adults are enemies to avoid or shun. There is a focus on looks. Emotions swing like a pendulum under conditions of uncertainty. Testosterone and Oestrogen weep from every pore. There is violence, bitchiness, nastiness and confused sexuality on every page. There is no contemplative silence. It's a narcissistic, self-absorbed world where nothing exists outside the chrysalis of youth. There is a core of amorality which runs through the book like a seam of coal and I remember that vividly from my teenage years - nothing is ever quite what it seems and even that seldom lasts for more than a month.

The plot is this: Obscura, a huge planet, appears on Earth's horizon one hot day in June. Kyle, a sexually confused New Mexico boy, scarred and burned in a fiery accident, struggles to come to terms with his new identity and his turbulent life. He is in love with his friend, wheelchair - bound Danny and also Shira, boyish, sculpted Best Friend Forever.  It's a cavernous, shifting love triangle. Complex enough you may think.  Now, add a parallel universe which occurs when Kyle sleeps, where everything is subtly different, where the reality is skewed and Kyle is nowhere near in control.  The shifting reality may - or may not - be due to the appearance of the strange planet and together with an alluring Latino babe and a mad professor, they go in search of the truth as the world waits in the shadow of Obscura, the harbinger of the coming apocalypse.

There is a lady on Twitter who will supply an in-depth critique of a writer's first ten pages for the princely sum of $35.  She should pay Suzanne: This first chapter is so elegantly written that subsequent events in the book tremble in its wake. 

It is Suzanne's best work (that I have read). The prose is flawless and absorbing, edifying and manna for the eyes.  The description of Kyle's situation and his environment is a sumptuous feast. I have read that magnificently crafted first chapter countless times. It is art and music, words structured in perfect harmony. Ornate. Cistine.

Feast on these two paragraphs:

"Dream catchers dangle feathers from her ceiling, the only evidence of her Native American heritage. “Dream catchers aren’t even Navajo,” she told me once. “They’re Sioux, but the tourists love them.” Dead roses and glittery strings of beads cling to the frame of her mirror, and stuck to a corner is the photograph of three smiling faces. The three of us at prom: Danny in his silver suit, me in blue, and Shira in black. Danny asked me to dance that night and I said no. Guess we’ll never have that dance, not in this reality or any other. 
Outside, the evening brings some respite from the heat of the day. Even Shira’s cacti are struggling in the drought. Some slouch like old men with hollow bellies while others have lost their limbs to thirst, their broken arms lying withered and forlorn in the dust. It’s June. There should be roiling thunderstorms every day, but instead there’s just dust and sizzling heat."

Spend time in proximity to Suzanne's writing and you'll bump into clean, luxurious and polished paragraphs like this at every turn.  With the prevailing fashion in YA for dialogue, minimalism and white space, there isn't as many as there could be: I wish there were more of them. She writes descriptive prose like a dream, naturally, with charisma, with ease, and with a remarkable lack of self consciousness. 

Chapter One may just be the best introductory paragraph I've read in ages, as rich a pure reading experience as I can remember, but  that is not to say the rest of the book is a let down. It's a question of benchmarks and relativity: It isn't. It's an excellent work of fiction, an absorbing and intricate hybrid of sci-fi and character study  which will stay with you. It's a very relationship based portrait of four young people and the flawed adults who surround them. 

Expect hard sci-fi and you'll be disappointed. However, we're definitely in another world here - a New Mexico firmly entrenched in another reality (Counter-Earth, Earth Two, Infinite Earths, Parallel Earth) - a different kind of place where the sand is more jagged, grittier and a degree further away from its normal position in the colour spectrum

Almost everything works. 

The love triangle is well drawn and absorbing. The supporting characters - the gorgeous Latino Mya in particular - are three dimensional, engaging and rounded. New Mexico is described, at times, as plush as as Cormac Mcarthy describes the badlands of Texas. Kyle's bisexuality is skilfully handled and unobtrusive. The science - for example, syzygy, the alignment of celestial bodies and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle - is accessible to the lay reader when it occurs.  Native American culture is alluded to with due reverence and as the story progresses, the plot gathers pace, particularly from the point where Kyle tells his harrowing story to Professor Cruz. 

Best of all, the creeping shadow of Obscura, the heavenly invader, the amethyst sphere which blots out the sky, humanity's uninvited interloper laminates each sentence with a sense of foreboding. 

Its an innovative book, carefully constructed, neatly plotted, and, toward the middle and end, well paced (a trifle slow to build). 

As with any multiple reality story, you can get lost and the realities shift in frenetic, fragmented fashion. The time you spend back tracking is worth it and reveals more than you expect.

As a story of shifting identities of youth, and the shifting loyalties and friendships, Suzanne is careful to make sure the story construction itself mirrors the turbulence. That's how much she thinks about her writing. 

Most of all, though, the book is a thing of beauty, an ornate piece of writing, something I would imagine is a masterclass in the YA genre.

Buy this book. You won't regret it.

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for such a glowing review - I honestly don't know what to say. Wow. Thank you!