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

Monday, June 01, 2009

The Hidden World -- Paul Park

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Summer 2009.

The Hidden World concludes the quartet that began with A Princess of Roumania, and continued in The Tourmaline and The White Tyger. Miranda Popescu, raised in our own world as an adopted orphan, is still homesick for Massachusetts -- a Massachusetts that was only ever imaginary, a refuge created for Miranda by her dead aunt Aegypta Schenk. Massachusetts is lost to Miranda, and she finds a way to enter the hidden world, the uber-reality that lies beyond and within the 'real' world where Miranda now lives. That 'real' world is definitively not our own, cosmologically or geographically or historically. The sun orbits the Earth (which may be flat); the planets are also gods; the British Isles have sunk beneath the sea, leaving Newton and Shakespeare refugees in an altered Europe; North America is a wilderness inhabited by savages, and Roumania is a world power. Now Miranda has ventured beyond that reality into a purer, more elemental world.

The Hidden World begins with Miranda recuperating in an isolated farmhouse, musing on her missing friends Andromeda and Peter, and haunted in dreams by her dead aunt, who's still determined to use Miranda as a tool to forge a better world and bring about the salvation of Greater Roumania.

Roumania is at war with Turkey, both in the real world where massive tanks roll up from technologically-supreme Africa and in the hidden world where monstrous hybrid dogs snarl and snap at Roumania's defenders. Airships rain bombs upon Budapest: survivors of a train crash in the south of the country are afflicted by radiation sickness. The old government has been overthrown, and some still mourn the death of the infamous diva Nicola Ceaucescu, rumoured to have been involved in sundry wickednesses.

Being dead is no impediment to Baroness Nicola Ceaucescu, sorceress and socialite, heroine of Roumania (in her own eyes, at least), ambitious and clever and utterly determined to defeat Miranda Popescu and her aunt Aegypta's vision of Roumania's future. The Baroness is far from a cardboard character: on the contrary, she's more complex, more conflicted and more fascinating than almost any other character in the four novels. She's very much a product of her time and her world, and her fragile, careful shell of vulnerability ("the happy thing about being a woman [is that] you don't have to do anything, but only suffer for long enough") overlays an ruthlessly indomitable core.

How Nicola Ceaucescu opposes Miranda is only part of the tale in this concluding volume. Miranda's friends -- in Massachusetts, they were Andromeda and Peter -- both find a measure of peace with their true selves. Of the three, though, it's Miranda who sees her choices clear-eyed and determines that the price demanded of her is too bitter, too high, and never-ending. "There were a lot of books I used to read ... There was always something to be accomplished, and it was always difficult. People suffered. But at the end of the book it was all worth it, because the thing was finished and the story over. That's not true here."

The Roumania quartet is post-modern fantasy: there are no easy answers, and even the questions are trick questions. Park trusts his readers to read, not just what's written -- in clear, elegant, unfussy prose -- but what's not. The Hidden World gives up its secrets subtly and gradually. Details that seem insignificant (the way that the Tourmaline, Kepler's alchemical stone, feels less like stone and more like 'a tough little sack of flesh'; the way that Kepler -- according to Newton -- imprisoned a creature of the Hidden World in a stone tower; perhaps, too, the way that photographs of Miranda's father never show his face clearly) suddenly fall into place. The last few pages of this novel are tremendously complex, packed with allusions that cast light on what's gone before. And, to return to Miranda's complaint, it is worth it: it is over.

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