I don’t use the word “perfect” or its derivatives very often. In Black Juice, Margo Lanagan has perfected a certain tone – a pervasive disquiet, an all-consuming unsettledness. It is hard to get your feet under you in many of her stories: something is different, not right. In the rare missteps, the slight off-kilter of her narrators caused me to look for a twist – the inhuman narrators of “Sweet Pippit” are really monkeys or trees or something that aligns with human experience or something like that – but Lanagan is better than that. There’s no easy punch line to any of her stories.
There’s no easiness in any of her stories. Along with the discomfort of the stories, there’s a strong undercurrent of sorrow: in “House of the Many,” a young boy leaves the world he’s grown up with, a village of cultists. When he returns, he finds that nothing is as big or as terrifying as he had remembered it. It’s not a new theme, but Lanagan plays it well: the boy’s reactions to the wideness of the full world and to the diminishment of the world he’d left are equally heartbreaking.
Her characters are often lost to themselves, like the nameless lady of “My Lord’s Man.” The wife of the lord has run away; her husband finds her and instead of taking vengeance dances with her. Watching, the lord’s servant doesn’t understand: “‘Mullord sees something in you,’ I finally say, ‘beyond your beauty and beyond your rage at the world. If he sees it, I believe it must be there.’” But the lady doesn’t see it either; the story ends with no resolution of the tension between the man and the lady – but with hope in the lord’s vision: “‘So we must both trust my lord’s sight,’ she whispers, ‘and hold onto that trust, mustn’t we? ’Tis all either of us can do.’”
And trust in others, in one’s family and in one’s community, is often what her stories are about. “Singing My Sister Down,” is a touching story of a family watching the ritual sacrifice of their sister and daughter in a tar pit. Lanagan normalizes the sacrifice and the reaction to it: it is an exceptional day, because the punishment (the woman has killed her husband) is unusual, but the method of execution is not extraordinary. And the woman, Ikky, trusts in her mother and her brother to watch her until she has sunk beneath the tar.
Lanagan’s prose is another attraction: every word is carefully chosen, showing the beauty of her constructions without seeming precious or overwrought. Take this passage from “Rite of Spring,” a story of the wind and the boy who has to bring the springtime to his people: “They’re something to throw at the wind; words seem like nothing, but they’re tiny, fancy, people’s things. Who cares whether they do anything? What else can we put up against the wind except our tininess and fanciness? What else can the wind put up against us but its big, dumb, howling brute-strength?” I can’t say anything about it; it’s simply right.
So is the whole collection. It’s bleak, but there’s a thread of hope throughout the bleakness: that if the man can’t see what his lord sees in his lady, the lord does; that even if you’re doomed to sink beneath the tar, your family will be there; that the plants at the end of “Perpetual Light,” a story about a woman burying her grandmother, will flourish: “Would they all twelve prove viable, their stalks strengthening, their greenness emerging, thickening, bunching, seemingly out of nothing and for no reason, vibrating slightly in their rows?”