Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book Review by Aimee: Isis, by Douglas Clegg

Isis is a book I received for review. In the instant I saw the cover and Douglas Clegg's website I was overcome by book lust, but I didn't realise that the book was a novella until it arrived in the mail. I mistakenly wrote the work off straight away as a poorly marketed children's picture book, but I was wrong. So very wrong.

Isis is the story of Iris Catherine Villiers, a girl growing up in a large, dark house atop rocky cliffs, with a governess who seems cold beneath her beauty, a set of older brother twins (one good, one bad) and a mother who has given up her dreams of the stage to play house while the children's father is at war. In a moment of furious will, Iris causes an event which alters her heart, her spirit, her very existence. But it is how Iris chooses to deal with this grief that carries the momentum of this book, along with the dark consequences that result from Iris' poisonous choice.

Strangely didactic in execution, Isis is a storytelling with the same black undertones as those existing in nursery rhymes and traditional Brothers Grimm fairytales. As the title Isis directs, the book draws its central nature from the Ancient Egyptian myth of the Queen Isis, who loses her husband, Osiris, to murder by a jealous enemy. Osiris as husband (who also happens to be Isis' brother!) is cut into parts by the enemy's wish and strewn all over the land. Rather than leave Osiris to rest in pieces, Isis' grief spurs her on to hunt for each piece and reassemble Osiris in the hope that he will be transformed to her living, breathing lover once more. As it turns out, the new Osiris cannot exist in the land of the living, but in Egyptian tradition where once you're royalty, you're always royalty, Osiris finds his new place as King, this time as the Lord of the Dead.

The writing in Clegg's Isis is Gothic in style, and sparse, with a preference for a strong and clear story without clogged detail. The author (wisely, I believe) draws all the characters sketchily, differentiating between them with a few carefully chosen sensory descriptions. For example, Iris' twin brothers can be told apart as "Spence smelled, in the summer, distinctly of dirt and pond water, while Harvey had a fragrance as if he'd rolled in lavender." There is nothing original about the story's characters unfortunately - you have the groundskeeper who enjoys regaling Iris with local ghost stories, the debaucherous nanny and the good and evil twin in a sprawling Victorian ancestral mansion with pulsing family tombs situated nearby. But it is the twist on the legend of Isis and Osiris that makes this black fable so refreshing. While Isis in the Egyptian myth is treated as a heroine, Clegg has treated his protagonist differently- Iris makes her choices out of the selfishness of longing and loss, and she is held at arm's length for the reader to see her actions as dark folly rather than heroic in nature.

Strangely, the novella is marketed as a horror, as evidenced by the book trailer:

To my mind, however, those in search of a mysterious horror will be disappointed. There are some slightly horrible moments, but when it boils down to it Isis is a sad, wispy tale of love and the selfishness of loss and longing. In all truthfulness, this is not a book that promises to excite and delight and set the heart to hammering - its beauty is the more shy, retiring type.

Despite enjoying the generally creepy atmosphere, the slightly-cliched characters, the symbolism and the pretty writing, what truly makes this precious novella covetable is the gorgeous illustrations. Done in a style reminiscent of the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the spindly artworks are melancholy sweetness and ghostly sorrow in equal measure. The illustrations are clever as well as beautiful - the pictures twist and turn - you may glimpse an eerie face on the normalcy of a tree trunk, and then blink and the face is gone. You'll be wondering whether you're seeing things, but really - that's half the fun, innit?!

I could attempt to criticise Mr Clegg's sophisticated offering by wishing it to have been a novel rather than novella, but on second thoughts any extra length would completely ruin its prettily poetic nature.

All in all, this book was such a pleasant surprise, and I'll be reading more of Douglas Clegg's works having so enjoyed this latest one.

But if you're still wondering whether YOU will enjoy it, I can only give the following guidance: if you're the type of person that holds their breath going past graveyards for fear of inciting bad luck (or worse, raising the dead), this book might make your fears a little worse.
But if you're not too afraid of such things, and you can appreciate for a few moments the delicate beauty of, say a spiderweb's intricate threadings, before brushing it out of your path, then read Isis - it's enchantingly dark, sorrowful and only slightly dangerous.

Rating: Isis receives 4 deathly romantic stars.