When you’ve read a gazillion books, it’s rare to be surprised. The pleasure in reading is found in how well the story is told, how believable the characters are, how the writer deals with their variations on the (generally familiar) plot. How’s the dialogue, how’s the worldbuilding, how are the relationships, how’s the show-don’t-tell?
But Pamela Dean surprised me. Here’s something new to me. A place in which knowledge is parceled out as the province of individuals who “know” for the whole community. The protagonist of this book, Arry, is a Physici, who knows about and understands pain for the people around her. Not so special, you say? Well, the kicker is that the people around her don’t experience their own pain, and have to go to Arry to find out whether something hurts. It was fascinating to see how Dean worked the interrelationships among people who don’t actually know things (what hurts? what is broken? what is a given person’s character? what is beautiful?) but who have to rely on the knowledge of others. How do memory and learning and knowledge and imagination and understanding even work in a place like this? And how did it happen in the first place? And what is changing now to make the plot move forward?
Not gonna tell you. Read it!
I’ve had a pretty good run of books lately, in which the writers are kind to their characters or selves (Room, Bean Trees, Yes Please, and the forthcoming review of Writing Down the Bones). Not that bad things don’t happen, but the characters (or writer, in Amy Poehler’s case) are allowed to unfold and grow and be present in their own lives. I like it. It makes me care more what happens to them. This was a lovely read.
The Dubious Hills by Pamela Dean. 1994. ISBN 0812523628.