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Monday, August 1, 2011

'Only Ever Always' by Penni Russon

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Who dreams the dreamer?

Claire lives in an ordinary world where everything is whole. But inside Claire is broken. The silvery notes of her music box allow her an escape from her grief into a dream-world, into Clara's world.

Clara's world has always been broken. She finds broken things to swap at the markets; she walks the treacherous route past the brown river where lone dogs prowl; she avoids the seamy side when she can, but with powerful people pulling the strings, it's not always possible.

Which world is real?

Claire's and Clara's paths are set to collide, and each has much to lose - or gain.

Original and poetic, this captivating novel explores dreams, grief, friendship and love through a brilliantly constructed dystopian fantasy world.

Claire is an ordinary girl whose world is about to be ripped to shreds. Her uncle Charlie has been in an accident, and no amount of promising from Claire’s mum will guarantee his health. While Claire waits to hear news from the hospital, she thinks about Charlie’s wife, Pia, and the baby on the way – Claire’s little cousin to-be.

In another time and place, Clara is on the wrong side of the river – a slum girl in a desolate world where zones have kings and Clara is torn between her own Andrew, and the brown-water eyed Groom, who begs her to cross the river with him.

Both girls dream of music boxes and keys, and eventually their worlds cross and interlace – Clara imprisoned in Miss Boedica’s palace cage and Claire on the verge of heartache in her bed.

But who is the dreamer and who is the dream?

‘Only Ever Always’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Penni Russon.

I’ll be honest and say that ‘Only Ever Always’ is not your typical YA novel, nor will it tickle the fancy of every young reader. But the toughness is part of the charm, as Russon explores complicated literary illusions and offers up a very different form of storytelling. ‘Only Ever Always’ will be a rewarding read for the intrepid young bibliophile who dares to try – but it’s also a novel to captivate and challenge older readers, as I found.

Normally I wouldn’t be overly interested in a novel like ‘Only Ever Always’ (much as it shames me to admit). But I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt, thanks to a film trailer I watched recently. The 2011 indie film ‘Another Earth’ from director Mike Cahill is the story of a duplicate earth – a replica planet where doppelganger’s mirror earth’s residents. Since watching the trailer for this film I have found myself fascinated with the idea of parallel worlds and parallel-selves – so much so that I thought the release of Russon’s novel happily fortuitous, since she explores similar themes in ‘Only Ever Always’.

There is Claire – living in a world much like our own, with a mother and a father and an uncle and aunt coming to visit. But when tragedy strikes she retreats into herself, awaiting news of her uncle from the comfort of her bed. She weaves in and out of fretful sleep.

Intersecting with Claire is Clara – a girl from a strange and dirty place. She is a guttersnipe, trading goods at the market and desperately searching for medicine for her sickly saviour, Andrew. Clara is pursued by gutter king, Groom, who desperately wants her as his own and wishes she would cross the river with him . . . and Clara is terrified at how badly she starts to want Groom too.

Readers will bring different understandings to Claire and Clara – you make think that one is a dream and the other the dreamer. Perhaps you wait for their real-time lives to catch up and for them to meet face to face. And that is the precise, distilled brilliance of ‘Only Ever Always’. It’s illusive and open-ended, altered by the impressions of the reader.

I am a dreamer too, and I must wake into a world of dreamers. You can feel it – can’t you? – the peeling off of me, another small loss you have to bear. We all bear it, as best we can, this infinite chain of miniature losses, a hundred thousand stories, a hundred thousand endings. A rehearsal you could call it, for the last ending that’s bound to come, eventually, somewhere in the white space between here and dreaming.

Claire and Clara’s alternate universes floating between dream and dreamer reminded me of an infamous quote from Chinese philosopher, Master Zhuang:

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamed I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awoke, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.

As I said before, ‘Only Ever Always’ is not an ‘easy’ young adult novel. If you read the author’s note at the end of the book, you’ll see that Russon conjured the idea for the novel during a conversation with her young daughter around about the time she was writing a master degree thesis about melancholy in narrative structure. Like I said; not exactly an ‘easy’ concept to grapple with – especially in young adult fiction.

But Russon strings readers along in her melancholic narrative by writing a very fascinating Clara-story. This world is very strange, at once harking back to a grimy past, but with hints of modernity. It almost reads like a steampunk mash-up of dueling atmosphere. And making Clara’s story even more interesting is her altering feelings for Groom – the boy who wants to cage her, and who she just might like being captured by.

‘Only Ever Always’ is not an easy novel, but Russon’s story is beautifully strange and lyrically intricate. It’s a different sort of YA read, and all the more fulfilling for its oddity.


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