Friday, May 06, 2005

Michael Gruber's The Witch's Boy

When I started blogging, I thought the hard thing would be reading enough to have material to post about. Well, guess what? I actually am reading ahead of my posting capabilities. In the last week I read two memoirs and three novels that I have yet to blog about. Go figure!

Let's start with The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber. The Witch's Boy is a fantasy written for (and marketed to) children. I found it through Borders' Original Voices program. This is Gruber's first children's book, but his third book published under his own name. He used to ghostwrite Robert Tanenbaum's novels (Tanenbaum is Gruber's cousin; I get the feeling they're not on friendly terms...).

This is the publisher's description of the book:

A wondrous journey through the realms of magic

They call him Lump. Ugly, misshapen -- more goblin than human child -- abandoned as an infant and taken in by a witch, he is nursed by a bear, tutored by a djinn; his only playmates are the creatures of the forest, whose language he learns to speak.

But when Lump inevitably stumbles into the human world, his innocence is no match for the depths of people's cruelty, which turns his heart to stone, and fuels a vengeance that places him and his witch mother in deadly peril. Yet these disasters also send Lump on a journey of self-discovery, to realms deep within the earth and far beyond mortal imagination.

In this stunning fantasy debut, Michael Gruber has created a world that is at once deceptively familiar and stunningly original, a world of cruelty, beauty, legend, truth, and above all, wonder. Readers will delight in the author's ingenious retelling of classic fairy tales and will marvel at the stunning new tale of a boy raised by a witch, a cat, a bear, and a demon.
I thought the premise was promising: a monstrous child raised by a witch with good intentions but poor maternal instincts, nursed by an attentive bear, tutored by an enslaved demon (the djinn), and supervised by the witch's feline familiar. The story is indeed good, but I found The Witch's Boy ultimately unsatisfying.

Lump (what a name) grows up overprotected -- his mother (usually referred to in the narrative as 'the woman') cast protection spells over him, so that nothing in his world ever harms him; he never gets skinned knees or mosquito bites, he's never exposed to frustration or sadness, and though lonely, he is for the most part blissfully unaware of his isolation. Until... other humans start encroaching on the witch's forest, and Lump's glimpse of their children at play prompts fantasies of new friends, real friends (unlike the children he glimpses through the magic windows in his djinn-created nursery). So naive and overprotected Lump makes contact with the children, with disastrous results:

Hatred breeds best in the soil of ruined dreams. Lump now felt for the first time in his life the hot pangs of that emotion. It was directed at his tormentors, not so much for what they were doing to him but because they were not what he had hoped them to be, a loving and admiring family. And at his mother, too, for not foreseeing this, for allowing him to believe he was something other than a hideous monster. And worst of all, at himself: self-contempt gripped at his vitals and also shame, and his free boy's heart was strangled in his bosom. (pp120-121)
[This quote also shows another problem with the novel: the writing is sometimes lovely and sometimes clunky -- "self-contempt gripped at his vitals and also shame, and his free boy's heart was strangled in his bosom"... Rewrite, please!]

In the aftermath of his near-death experience, Lump is bitter. And he just keeps making horrible choices which ultimately cost him and his 'family' everything.

That's exactly the problem with this novel. Lump never seems to learn. And when he finally does, it seems hurried and forced (it's at the end of the narrative). So does his marriage and his reconciliation with his mother. I just wasn't convinced of his transformation, after seeing him repeat his mistakes time and time again. Yes, we're told he had ten years to do nothing but think of his mistakes (I won't say how or why), but we (okay, I at least) don't see him really wrestle with himself. I just didn't see the change or growth, so the resolution felt hollow. In fact, the entire novel feels superficial, full of missed opportunities to really develop the characters or deal with issues like grief, hate, prejudice, cruelty, love...

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