No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Princess of Roumania -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in November 2005.

"I used to love those stories where the girl feels she doesn't belong, and she's having some kind of problems, and she wakes up in a different country -- just like this. ... This isn't that kind of story."

This isn't that kind of story: but at first you might think that it is. A Princess of Roumania introduces Miranda, a teenage girl living in small-town Massachussetts, who's haunted by memories of her early childhood. She has been told that she was adopted from an orphanage in Romania at the age of three, after her parents disappeared during the uprising against Ceaucescu. She remembers playing on a beach, and travelling on a train, and a cottage in a forest; and these vividly visual memories, together with a bundle of keepsakes (a bracelet, some antique coins, a book -- The Essential History -- in a language she can't read), are all that she has of her parents and her origins.

These mementos, these symbolic quest-objects, draw the reader's attention. It's simple to construct a plot around them: a tale of a princess snatched from her home to be reared by common folk until she is adult enough to claim her inheritance, right wrongs, overthrow the oppressor and free her country. It's easy to think that we're reading that story, and Park knows it, is complicit in it.

But the tale is not entirely Miranda's. The Baroness Nicola Ceaucescu sits in a tall house in Bucharest, in (we are told) 'a different time'. She has sent her servants, spirit-children under her magical control, after Miranda. She sits reading the other copy -- there are only two in all of time and space -- of The Essential History, and marvelling at the convoluted history (Hitler, Stalin, Communism) of the world it describes. "Such a tangle of invention, and for what?" This is not her world. The Baroness's world is at the centre of a pre-Copernican universe, the planets turning around it in concentric spheres. In her world England was destroyed by a tidal wave in the 17th century: some of the survivors fled to the Continent. (Newton was made welcome in Berlin.) In her world, Massachussetts is a wilderness.

Opposing the Baroness is the Princess Aegypta Schenk von Schenk, author of The Essential History: nobility reduced to poverty by the machinations of the Empress Valeria and her party. Aegypta is Miranda's aunt, and it is she who arranged for the infant Miranda to be hidden in a place of safety. The Baroness, though, has discovered that safe place, and Miranda is being drawn back to her homeland.

Miranda does not come willingly, or alone. She is accompanied by Peter Gross, a one-armed boy to whom she's drawn despite her thoughtless rejection of anyone who isn't clever and popular, and by her best friend Andromeda, who is smart and tough and feisty. But when they pass from this world to that other, Andromeda and Peter are dramatically, physically changed. And Miranda changes too, though it's not so obvious. She loses her certainty, her understanding, her confidence: and the reader flounders with her.

The story's told from a number of viewpoints (Miranda, Peter, the Baroness, the Elector of Ratisbon) yet never immerses the reader fully in any one character's perceptions. For example, during Miranda's narrative, we recognise her adoptive father's flash of joy when she quotes his own advice back at him. Scattered throughout the novel are observations and remarks that at first glance seem transparent. The metaphor that springs to mind is panning out: the author drawing back to show the reader some context.

Yet the context that's revealed is not necessarily the obvious one. There are subtleties of tone and shading, and of narrative pace, that steer the reader towards one understanding, and then another. This blurring of reality, this lack of definition, mirrors Miranda's own confusion. It bestows unexpected, and not necessarily reliable, insights into the characters' motivations, beliefs, and identities.

Park's achievement lies in the clarity of his prose, and in his careful, precise rendition of character. Many young heroines behave like grown women, but Miranda is credibly teenaged, utterly rooted in the world she's grown up in (transported to the North American wilderness, she still thinks of Albany as 'forty-five minutes' drive away') and not always very likeable. Peter is perhaps less believable an American teenager, but there are hints that he is, at heart, neither American nor teenaged. And the Baroness Ceaucescu, whose villainy is made explicit at her first appearance, has depth and dimension to such an extent that by the end of the book -- the first, damn, of a series, though it's not clear how many volumes this will comprise -- I began to wonder if this was her story, and not Miranda's at all.

This book will be compared to Pullman's His Dark Materials, and to the works of Jonathan Carroll and Gene Wolfe (and, inevitably, to the Harry Potter series, with which the sole consonance seems to be the fact that Miranda and her friends are teenagers). All these comparisons are in some sense valid, yet all fall short. Interestingly, too, every review I've seen seems to find a different interpretation of the events, the setting and the characters. A Princess of Roumania is like nothing except itself: bittersweet, clear and cold and complex.

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