Saturday, 4 April 2020

Book review: The Grass Dancer, Susan Power (1994)

I discovered an extract from this beautiful fantasy in an anthology I read earlier this year, then bought ‘The Grass Dancer’ second-hand on AbeBooks.

The story centres on a young woman named Pumpkin who sometimes performs as a grass dancer in ceremonial events of the Native American community that still exists in the Midwest. She has red hair and green eyes and leaving a powwow in 1981 is killed in a car accident. At the event she had spent the night with a young man named Harley Wind Soldier and had also attracted the unwanted attention of a young woman named Charlene Thunder, whose grandmother, Mercury, is a shaman.

After looking at the personal histories of several characters by taking us gradually back in time, following the ancestors of Charlene and Harley, and recounting the events that combined to make up the parts of their lives the reader needs to know to understand a history of the Dakota nation, the author returns us to the early 80s. In the book’s Escher-like architecture, where figures come into focus and disappear, only to come back again later, deracination and entrenched disadvantage are examined, but the main theme is that of destiny and free will.

The final chapters are dated in the early 1980s, so there is a logical point of closure for the narrative, but what really impressed me was the inventiveness of the writing. The striking visual imagery, the reliance on mystical sections that recount feelings and dreams, and the allusive quality of the prose combine to serve up a rich intellectual concoction that startles and delights at every turn of the plot.

The novel offers readers who, like me, chance upon it, a kind of cross between a crime thriller and Garcia Marquez. It keeps you guessing right up to the final chapters but the real drama is in the language. This book is a kind of hybrid and has slipped through the cracks, virtually disappearing: where is the author now? In her novel, subtle nods to such classics as ‘Star Wars’ (1979) and Jane Austen, both so popular nowadays, serve as confident articulations of her superior aesthetic judgement. She was ahead of her time in other ways, too. Magic in fiction is now commonplace, but in the 90s it was exceptional to find it in novels, though dreams seem to appear frequently in stories from that decade. What is also more prevalent now are stories with strong women at their core. In ‘The Grass Dancer’, women are not merely powerful, some of the female characters possess what appears to be almost limitless agency.

It is a timeless work that can delight if read in the 21st century. The character of Jeanette, who we encounter in the first chapters of the book and who feels an affinity with Native Americans as outsiders, is as fully formed as the principals even though she performs a secondary role in the story. Power has formidable attention to detail.

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