Whenever I think of unsung SFF, my thoughts turn to THE NECESSARY BEGGAR by Susan Palwick. It's one of those books I'd like to give to everyone with even a slight interest in imaginative literature.
The review below first appeared on October 21st, 2010.Title:
THE NECESSARY BEGGARAuthor:
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Well, look at that. I've read some religious fiction.
No, no, don’t run away! I assure you, THE NECESSARY BEGGAR has plenty of appeal for non-religious fiction readers. I mean, I am
a non-religious fiction reader, and I loved it to bits.
To be clear, this isn’t marketed as a religious novel. According to the spine, it’s science fiction; a fair enough label, though I think one could make a much better case for it as almost-contemporary fantasy. It follows a family from another world as they adjust to life in very-near-future Nevada. Their homeworld is a decidedly fantastical place filled with unseen (but widely acknowledged) ghosts, where Judges exile wrongdoers to other dimensions by means of a glowing blue portal. Since the world seems to operate at a much lower technological level than does our own, I assume the portal is mystical rather than scientific. And once they arrive in Nevada, the ghosts become somewhat less unseen.
Really, though, I’m not sure I’d want to put a definite label on the book. I’ve chosen to consider it religious fiction because of the deep and respectful way Palwick examines both Christianity and the faith the family brings from their homeworld, but if you don’t normally read religious novels, please don’t let the designation scare you off. While religion plays an important role, THE NECESSARY BEGGAR is in no way preachy or dismissive of any particular faith. Palwick shows us a variety of different approaches, and she passes no judgment. It’s never a matter of absolute truths and eternal damnation for those who won’t accept them; rather, it’s about presenting a number of different outlooks which the reader may or may not want to consider as she sees fit.
I liked this very much. When it comes to religion, I'm leery of any book that claims to provide answers. I much prefer questions and ever-shifting ideas which the reader is free to accept as she sees fit. Palwick gave me both, and I thank her for it.
But just listen to me, rambling on about the religious side of things when really, I think you could
ignore those bits if you wanted. Palwick doesn't draw any more attention to them than to any other aspect of the plot, and she gives the reader plenty else to focus on. Her characters are wonderfully complex, and their emotional journey is downright heartbreaking.
Palwick utilizes three points of view. Timbor, the family patriarch, narrates his chapters in the first person. He’s clearly writing after the fact, and provides us with some commentary on the story as a whole. In other chapters, we watch events unfold through the eyes of Zamatryna, Timbor’s eldest grandchild. Her third person POV forms the bulk of the book, and provides us with a solid emotional connection to the story. Finally, we have Darrotti, Timbor’s youngest son, whose actions led to the family’s exile. He kills himself shortly after their arrival and becomes a ghost, desperate to tell his side of the story as he was unable to do in life. Unfortunately, his father and brothers are so used to the idea of ghosts as present but unseen that they cannot recognize him for what he is. He spends much of his time trapped by the memories he cannot share with his family.
It’s an effective, poignant structure. Timbor commentates; Zamatryna experiences; Darrotti remembers. Their stories intertwine to provide a powerful commentary on family, the immigrant experience, and the nature of love. I became so deeply involved with them that I read with my heart in my throat, terrified things would not end well. Even now, weeks after I finished it, I want to burst into tears whenever I so much as think of certain scenes and images.
I highly recommend this to anyone interested in contemplative, interstitial work with a solid emotional core. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it’s widely read; I’d certainly never heard of it before I purchased it from Whitcoulls’ bargain section. (I chose it because I’d read and loved some of Palwick’s short fiction). That just kills me. Books as wonderful as this one deserve a huge audience.
4 stars - loved itOther Reviews:In Which Our HeroJo Walton for Tor.com
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