by Charles de Lint



508pp/$27.95/October 2001

The Onion Girl
Cover by John Jude Palencar

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

One of the most enigmatic characters in Charles de Lint’s novels and stories about the mythical city of Newford, Jilly Coppercorn, is also one of the most pervasive of his characters, appearing in a supporting role in practically all of the stories while rarely taking center stage.  In The Onion Girl, de Lint rectifies this situation by presenting Jilly’s complete life story as well as the biography of Jilly’s sister, Raylene.  The resulting story is not what would be expected from the generous artist with the strong tie to fairy.

Jilly’s story begins with her recuperation from an hit and run accident.  Recovering in hospital, she reflects on her own history even as she discovers the way to enter, while dreaming, into the lands of fairy so many of her friends can inhabit.  Interspersed with the narrative by Jilly are chapters relating the history of Raylene, who Jilly left behind when she fled home as a child.

Many themes find their ways into The Onion Girl.  Perhaps the major theme is personal responsibility.  Both Jilly and Raylene went through the abusive relationship as children, but their ways of dealing with it were completely opposite.  Jilly spent years as a victim, becoming a hooker, before she discovered the power of friendship and began to take control of her own life.  Raylene felt as if she was in control, but became a victim of her own anger.  Eventually that anger led to a confrontation with the sister, on whom she blamed everything that had ever gone wrong with her life.

de Lint doesn’t pull his punches as he describes the difficult lives led by Jilly and Raylene.  Their sexual assaults, whoring, crime sprees, etc. are all described in detail.  Leaving behind the urban art scene that informs so much of de Lint’s writings, he turns his attention to the “white trash” community in which the girls grew up.  Their home in the “hollers” and the local town of Tyson become as real as Newford, if less savory.

In addition to settings in Newford, Tyson and Hollywood, a significant portion of the novel takes place in the dreamlands, a fantasyland which could easily have been an escape, but de Lint turns into yet another battlefield for the injustices Raylene feels she has suffered and the optimism which enables Jilly to continue living despite her injuries, both mental and physical.

Despite the story of revenge, murder, sexual abuse and other dark motifs, The Onion Girl is a much lighter, more optimistic novel than some of the books de Lint has set in Newford.  Even as Jilly finds herself partially paralyzed and faced with a vengeful sister, she looks forward to her future with hope and manages to maintain her optimism.  Furthermore, her friends all rally around her, providing an important support network for both Jilly and the reader.

The Onion Girl does not end with all its loose ends tied up.  Jilly’s life is back on track, but her injuries remain to be dealt with.  Characters are in the process of changing their outlooks on life, and some questions posed by de Lint are not answered.  In The Onion Girl, de Lint also changes certain fundamentals which have always existed in Newford concerning the world of fairy and who has access.  These changes, and Jilly’s central role in uniting de Lint’s characters, mean that the events described in The Onion Girl will echo throughout future Newford stories and novels.

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