Canadian author Lauren Davis has sent me her latest book, a fantasy portal quest that grapples with the problem of drug addiction. She knew it would appeal to me because of how it draws on fantasy literature, especially Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, to explore ways of responding to this gut-wrenching issue.
The protagonist of The Grimoire of Kensington Market (“grimoire” means “book of magic spells”) operates a semi-magical bookstore, which she stumbles into when escaping Toronto’s drug scene. Being lost in a book is similar to being lost in drugs, only without the bad side effects:
She’s almost grown accustomed to dreaming in fairy tales. As a child, the dreams had been vague, mere snippets of glass mountains, talking frogs and handless maidens. But when she lost herself to the drug elysium all that changed. The boundaries grew thin. Dreams were no longer dreams; they were journeys into the Silver World, the World Beside This One. What was real and what wasn’t blended. Fairy tales, holy myths, ancient figures from the imaginations of a million dreamers…they were as real as the hand at the end of one’s arm. That was the deadly lure of the elysium.
The bookstore is called the Grimoire because its books resemble spells that take us through magical portals. The only people who can locate the store are those who will immerse themselves in a book and allow it to work its magic. If Maggie finds her way to the Grimoire, it is because, at some deep level, she realizes she needs books to overcome her addiction.
On that first day the owner allows her to stay, and she “curled up in a dusty corner with the copy of the fifteenth-century masterpiece Tales from the Sleeping Fortress, and read and slept, read and slept.” Since I haven’t heard of Sleeping Fortress, I’m wondering if Davis has invented it, fantasizing about a book that could function as a drug antidote. In any event, the owner sees her plight and tells her, “You are here, so apparently this is where you are supposed to be.” He sets her to “organizing the section on addiction stories, subsection Dark Night of the Soul,” and he wills her the store when he dies.
Sometimes people enter the store guided by a dream, in which cases Maggie helps them find the right book. She recommends Goethe’s “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lilly” in Tales for Transformation to a customer going through her own transformation:
You know, that sounds right somehow. God knows I’m going through enough transformations right now—divorce, retirement, you don’t want to know—and everything feels enigmatic. Might give me some food for thought.
Maggie tells her,
You won’t know what it all means until you read it. But it’s not that unusual. You’d be surprised how many people come in here asking for books based on their dreams.
Years ago I formulated a mystical theory, based on many experiences, that the book you need will somehow find its way into your life. Davis describes such a process happening with Maggie: “As often happened when a book caught her eye, it was just what she hadn’t known she was looking for.”
People who can’t experience the power of books can’t enter the Grimoire, including the drug-dealing Srebenka. The doors are open only to those willing to surrender to words. We see an instance of such willingness (although it just involves books, not the store) when Maggie teaches an outlaw woman how to read. When Beth, aided by a magic seed, enters the world of fiction, the world changes:
“Look around this room.” The wave of [Maggie’s] hand encompassed the once-griseous window now lucent; the once-malodorous bedding now fragrant with lavender; the once-shit-spattered pigeon cages now polished; even Beth herself, skin shining, eyes bright with knowledge. “It’s your reading that’s done this, not me. And the more people you teach to read, the more reading you do, the more the magic will take root and spread. Consider this. With books you have everything. You have the whole wide world.”
Books enter Maggie’s store in the same mysterious way that they enter our lives, showing up when we need them and disappearing when we don’t. Here’s how the shelves are stocked:
Several golden lights flashed, the size of the fairy lights people sometimes hung in gardens, and Maggie noticed two shelves, one housing stories about Syrian immigrants and the other stories of sub-Saharan Africa, lengthened just a tad.
Such was the way new additions to the shop were announced. Some days the shop seemed to sparkle, so many books appeared, other days a few flickers and nothing more. One would think that such a bookshop would eventually burst through its walls, since more and more stories appear in the world, and therefore in the Grimoire, every hour, with shelves expanding to accommodate each one, but it is a sad truth that stories also leave the world when they are forgotten or when the last tellers of the tale has died. When this happened, a small flame appeared above the book in questions and as it burned, the books itself dimmed, lost its shape and, when the flame snuffed out, so did the book. In this way, although the inside of the shop expanded or contracted to fit the world’s tales, it was always the perfect size.
In the course of the novel, however, Maggie decides she must leave the safe confines of the store to rescue her brother Kyle, who is still addicted. Books, in other words, aren’t enough in and of themselves but must lead to action. As Maggie tells Beth, “Stories give us tools we can use later…”
Kyle has been abducted by Srebrenka, a witch figure from another dimension who has unleashed elysium upon the world. As an addict, Kyle doesn’t represent a threat to Srebrenka, but because Maggie’s books do, she uses Kyle as bait. We get a glimpse into how the author uses fantasy in her own battle against addiction and self-destruction by a mention of her brother’s drug-related suicide in the afterword. Several years ago Davis allowed me to share an account of the incident on this blog.
Davis relies most heavily on Andersen’s story about a girl who rescues her brother from the Snow Queen and from the glass splinter that has frozen his emotions. Maggie too embarks on a hero’s quest into the pitiless realm of an addiction’s cold self-absorption.
Snow Queen riveted me when I was a child, in part because I felt trapped in my own emotional reserve. Davis, on the other hand, focuses on the frustration of not getting through to someone who has retreated from the world.
Andersen’s story is not the only fantasy to which Davis turns for her exploration. We encounter many fairy tales, often told from two points of view–rescuer and rescued–and often with a dark slant. Without their “happily ever after,” many fairy tales resemble horror fiction, and versions of “The Glass Mountain,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Hansel and Gretel” show up in Maggie’s nightmares.
I also pick up echoes of the Narnia books (the white witch’s Turkish delight from Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, both witch and captive prince from Silver Chair, the door portals from Prince Caspian, the forbidden fruit in Magician’s Nephew). There’s a polar bear that looks like it walked in from The Golden Compass and settings that toggle between the magical and the mundane as the fairy godmother’s turret room does in George MacDonald’s Princess and the Goblin.
Moving out of fantasy for a moment, one Davis passage reminded me of Lucille Clifton’s poem “white lady,” the street name for cocaine. Davis writes, “The elysium longs for you, longs to hold you, longs to dream for you and ease your grief.” Clifton writes,
says i want you
let me be your lover
run me through your
feel me smell me taste me
nobody understands you like
In the end, Maggie finds herself battling Srebrenka over the ice splinter in her brother’s eye. To know Davis’s back story is to recognize how monumental the struggle is. Fantasy helps her go there.