A bit of background, in the interest of truth-in-reviewing — Lou Aronica is a dear friend of many years. We've worked together, we read each other's work, we're open and blunt when criticism is called for, despite which we get along beautifully. I saw an early draft of Lou's new novel awhile back, and Lou nods, nicely but unnecessarily, to me in his acknowledgements.
That bit of history is not intended as a caveat: buyers of his Blue need no warnings other than to set aside a few undisturbed hours. Blue will not let you put it down.
Like all good fiction, Blue asks "What If?" Because Blue is a fantasy novel, the question carries implications larger than this reality. There are several of these questions, each carefully placed, elegantly asked, in the novel:
- What role do our imaginations play in our creation of the world we live in, as well as the worlds we imagine?
- Are there times when the worlds of our imagination become not merely distractions from the problems we face, but also crucial elements of our survival?
- Is the appeal of the fantastic — of fantasy itself — dangerous? How easily a devotion to an imagined place of our creation become more real than the world we must live, and die, in?
But the largest, and most moving of the questions that propel Blue's narrative, and raise its already high narrative stakes to even higher emotional ones, is this:
What is our responsibility to our children and to both their imaginations and their understanding of the often harsh nature of the world we've brought them into?
It's a question that every parent faces, sooner or later, and most of us face it in moving, sometimes shattering, but still mundane contexts: children grow up and move away, marriages dissolve and families are separated, time passes and with its passage come changes.
Some parents, tragically, face the question more ultimately: children die or are killed, or are otherwise lost in ways that alter forever both the parent and, often, the parent's memories of the time before tragedy.
What Lou Aronica accomplishes in Blue is to take this basic, and universal, question, wed it to a beautifully realized and absolutely believable fantasy plot, and somehow explore the theme on both levels, deeply examining the natures of parenthood, loss, responsibility while also unveiling — and deeply examining — a wholly believable and self-consistent imagined counter-world which is faced with its own version of the questions confronting the novel's protagonist.
The treatment of that protagonist, Chris Astor, is what grounds Blue in our real world, and at the same time enables the transcendent vision of the counter-world, Tamarisk, to be equally grounded for all of its fantastica. Chris Astor is a good guy, a guy who understands the nature of responsibility and takes it seriously, particularly his responsibilities as the divorced father of a teenaged daughter. Becky, at fourteen, is the center of his life, a center from which he feels increasingly estranged. Chris knows that he can be a better man than he is, though is uncertain how to become that better self. He knows as well that he's been better in the past.
Nine years ago. Chris saw five-year-old Becky through a life-threatening illness by creating, with her. Tamarisk — a place they could go and not have to face the world of doctors, treatments, fear, death. Tamarisk was their world, Chris and Becky's, something so special and vivid and idyllic that it took on a life of its own.
Now, after a divorce that flowed in large part from the opposite of idyllic Tamarisk — the brutal honesty, expressed angrily out children's earshot, that a child's desperate illness and its strains can impose on a marriage — Chris is cut off from Tamarisk and, increasingly. from his daughter. Aronica's use of that opposition is superb, as is every one of the novel's oppositions and parallelisms, which are always effective and never strained. The opening scene, a divorced father fast-forwarding through old home movies, watching time speed up even as it passes into the, well, irretrievable past, is heartbreaking and beautiful, closing with the TV screen, like Chris's life, going blue.
It's a pleasure to read Aronica's prose. He is always clear, telling his story in a style and with language that invites the reader in, welcoming them and keeping them welcome from one well-realized scene to the next, whether the scene takes place in this world or in Tamarisk. Only occasionally does Aronica over-explain or over-describe his character's feelings and thoughts, the rare missteps the more noticeable for their rarity. Most of the time his characters speak for themselves, in sharp and believable dialogue that's notable for its avoidance of the cloyingness that too often harms father/daughter stories. His mastery of point-of-view ensures that readers experience each character as a separate and memorable individual; whether that individual lives here or in Tamarisk, their motivations and insights are believable and consistent.
A pleasure as well to encounter a deeply imagined fantasy world that doesn't re-use the same old small furry creatures in Thomas Kinkade houses. Instead, Tamarisk is a refraction (sic) of our own world with its problems and challenges, as well as a reflection of Becky and Chris. Whether or not Tamarisk is real, the world becomes as real for the reader as for Becky and Chris.
That Aronica makes every bit of this seem absolutely effortless is a testament both to his obvious skill as a writer — there are half a dozen aspects of this book, beginning with the creation Tamarisk itself, that are exceptionally difficult to accomplish, much less accomplish as well asAronica does here — and to the integrity he brings to, and invests in, his material.
Blue is a novel about love, love of father for child, child for father, love of life, love of imagination, love of nature.
It is also a major and ambitious fantasy novel — that also works beautifully well for the rational among us as a serious psychological, and metaphorical, investigation of the appeals of fantasy — that one can hope is the first of many novels of many different types.
Wherever he goes as a writer — which is wherever he wants to, although it's hard to imagine him writing ReturnTo Tamarisk, or The Winds Of Tamarisk — Lou Aronica has given readers a wonderful experience that can be read on many levels, but an experience that above all reminds readers of the joys of parenthood, and the ways in which those joys so often exist alongside, and sometimes exist more deeply because of, the loss of childhood that parenthood itself in so many ways and, like Blue, on so many levels, inevitably and inexorably requires us to confront.