This month’s recommended read is Faerie Fruit by Charlotte E. English. Published in 2016 you can get this as an ebook or as a paperback with a charming fruit-adorned cover. English is a prolific writer who has brought out a wide range of linked Fantasy novels including the Malykant Mysteries, the Tales of Aylfenhame and the House of Werth and Modern Magick series. This book is the first of three Wonder Tales but that just tells you what type of story to expect. Faerie Fruit is that rare commodity – a stand alone Fantasy novel. Even more unusual is the fact that it doesn’t contain a single teenager.
The setting for Faerie Fruit is the small town of Berrie-on-the-Wyn and the period `once upon a time’. The novel has an unusual structure, with each section centred on different characters. In Part One we meet a pair of a middle-aged lovers – Clarimond, a widow who lives with her ailing mother and Tobias who runs The Moss and Mist Inn on the northern bank of the River Wyn. When Clarimond’s mother, Clover, is desperately ill she longs for just one apple but the orchards in and around Berrie have long been barren. After Clarimond dreams of haunting music and beautiful fruit she finds one perfect golden apple in her garden. When Clover eats the apple she swiftly recovers but there is also an unexpected change in her behaviour. Miserly Clover insists on giving her possessions away.
Meanwhile, strange fruits ripen on trees all over Berrie, including silver pears in the garden of The Moss and Mist. Townspeople who eat this faerie fruit are cured of their ailments but there is always a disturbing or unpleasant side effect. Tobias links the fruit with an episode in his family history and to the appearance in Berrie of a mysterious stranger called Pippin Greensleeves. Clarimond and Tobias resist the lure of the fruit for as long as they can but when Berrie begins to change in dramatic ways, they set out on a perilous journey to try to atone for past mistakes and save their town.
Part Two centres on elderly husband and wife, Ambrose and Helewise, who live in South Berrie growing flowers and keeping bees. A mist has settled over the town and they observe many changes in their neighbours. Exotic strangers begin visiting the marketplace seeking something called alorin. Some of these strangers seem to be suffering from an illness which makes them pale and weak. Helewise fears that her husband may have the same illness and seeks answers from Pippin Greensleeves. In Part Three, the setting changes to North Berrie, which is now cut off from the Southtown. Weaver Hattie has lost her husband, who happened to be in Southtown on the morning that it vanished. Hattie’s new boots seem to have a will of their own and take her to a place where she finds a glass key. Her clever brother Theodosius discovers the purpose of the key and together they enter Faerie in search of the being whose extravagant grief is causing many of Berrie’s problems.
In Part Four the story returns to Berrie where a cantankerous old woman called Dorothea only finds peace when submerged in the river and Helewise is determined to help a faerie woman who has been changed to marble. Can a small but stubborn group of citizens unite with powerful beings to bring healing and renewal to both the human and faerie worlds?
.One of my reasons for appreciating this novel is that I live with five cranky old apple trees. Some years they are as barren as the orchards of Berrie but in others they bear plentiful sour or sweet fruit. One year the oldest tree entirely covered itself in small golden apples that looked like Christmas baubles. English clearly understands the capricious nature of fruit trees but she also draws on the magical qualities of apples in myth and folklore. There are the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, guarded by a dragon in a garden at the world’s end, the Apples of Youth that keep the Norse gods young and of course the apples on the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden. None of these are meant to be tasted by humankind. The price of stealing Forbidden Fruit is always high but it is sometimes worth paying.
I’d originally intended to recommend another novel about Forbidden Fruit – Hope Mirrlees’ Fantasy classic Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) in which the conventional inhabitants of a dull town lose their inhibitions, and sometimes their lives, after eating banned fairy fruit. The problem is that I admire this novel but cannot love it. Mirrlees (a talented poet) showed little sympathy for the community she was writing about and her treatment of the female characters now seems particularly unkind. In contrast, Faerie Fruit is a sensitive and warm-hearted story. English gives both her human and faerie characters plenty of faults and foibles but she writes about them with compassion and gentle humour. She also has respect for ordinary people and the unexpected heights they can rise to in a crisis. There are no aristocrats among her human characters – no gallant knights or beautiful princesses – just sensible middle aged or older people in useful professions. It is a pleasure to read a Fantasy novel in which mature women take the leading roles.
My favourite among them is Hattie, who valiantly tries to keep going after her husband disappears. Eating faerie fruit has improved her eyesight but left her with a compulsion to spend money she doesn’t have on beautiful but impractical shoes. I know how she feels… A pair of mulberry leather shoes lined with jade silk lead her steps into adventure. Hattie’s bickering but affectionate relationship with her bookbinder brother Theodosius is nicely portrayed. The book-learning of rational Theodosius helps to solve clues while they are in Berrie but becomes almost useless once they enter Faerie. Hattie has to point out that his `logic has no place in Faerie’ and nor does the reader’s. Berrie is a recognizably human place invaded by chaos but Faerie is an inner world of the imagination where concepts, emotions and forces of nature are embodied as living beings. To enter it, you have to set aside most of what you think you know but the rules of emotional intelligence still apply. Hattie’s very human mix of compassion and ruthless practicality is more than a match for a grief of mythical proportions.
The intrusions of Faerie into Berrie disrupt quiet and orderly lives but also bring some much needed excitement and beauty. English has a rare talent for evoking beauty without slowing down the narrative with long descriptive passages. The joy is in the details – silver mottled pears, a blush-pink peach `spangled with white like a breath of frost’, common blue borage transformed into starflowers, the glass key with a rainbow image of an apple at its heart and even Hattie’s boots of `violet velvet with lacings of azure and gold’. Lovely as it is, the fragile Faerie realm has lost its vigour and is in danger of fading away, damaged by human greed and faerie inertia. It is easy to read Faerie Fruit as a fable for our times. The people of Berrie discover that their ancestors have damaged a world they knew little about and endangered its very existence. What makes this is a hopeful book is that old wrongs are forgiven and people of different cultures acknowledge their weaknesses and combine their strengths to fight for the future. This novel is a delicately crafted labour of love, so why not take a bite of Faerie Fruit? Until next time…