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The Witch and the Cathedral

Posted by on August 3, 2007

The Changeover is a soothing read because nothing really bad happens. I mean, bad things do happen, but you’re removed from the emotion of the scene because of the beauty of the writing. It’s similar to the way Michael Ondaatje can write an emotionally-charged scene that actually calms the reader down — although I’m not sure he does that on purpose.

Example from Ondaatje’s new book Divisadero:

Then he took [Anna] by the hand, and never let go of her on the twenty-minute walk down the hill to the farmhouse, the quarter horse nodding beside them, and Anna screaming his name.

The twenty-minute walk, the nodding horse — the sleepy pastoral setting makes the screaming funny. And I don’t see why he would want to do that, since it’s rather a pivotal moment in the whole novel: we’re supposed to feel the horror of what just happened, but you can’t feel it with that horse nodding next to you.

D.H. Lawrence was the master of summoning the landscape to rise and support the emotion of his story. Things were always churning restlessly, reflecting the inner turmoil of his characters. Ondaatje can’t or won’t do that. Perhaps that’s why I can get lost in an Ondaatje novel but keep getting thrust out of Lawrence. It’s hard to walk on such a shifting land.

Right now I’m re-reading The Witch and the Cathedral by C. Dale Brittain, and this is a different kind of “nothing bad will happen” book. In this series (which begins with A Bad Spell in Yurt and goes on from there), there’s nothing upsetting: the only people who die are old, no one gets hurt or goes hungry. My favorite thing about the series is that everyone gets to perform the job best suited to his or her personality. Whether you are a trombone player, a glass blower, a pastry chef or a priest, Yurt has room for you. It’s cheery and soothing.

The books all deal with a hapless wizard named Daimbert, and they’re filled with the kind of cocoa humor that makes you warm and cotton-headed rather than making you laugh. There’s nothing in here to shake you out of your quiet evening: just a pleasant little kingdom, filled with nice folks and innocuous mystery plots. You can snuggle into Daimbert’s cozy study with him, with roses climbing over the window and a fire crackling in the hearth. In the morning you get fresh crullers for breakfast (unless you’ve pissed off the kitchen maid again; then it’s stale donuts for you).

You’ll enjoy Yurt if you like the simplicity of fairy tales, the small sensual pleasures in Jonathan Carroll novels, or mysteries that are easy to crack, as in The Cat Who… books.

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