I’ve been trying to read Chrysanthe for two weeks now, and still haven’t hit the halfway point. It’s that experience where the bookmark never seems to move; whenever I sit down to read, I can’t get far before my mind starts to wander. With roughly three hundred pages left to go, I’ve decided to cut my losses.
It starts promisingly enough. Yves Meynard introduces us to a little girl, Christine, who lives with her unpleasant uncle in a world similar to our own present day, but has vague memories of a very different life — a life in a castle, where she wore beautiful gowns and was surrounded by people who loved her. What Meynard does really well here is capture that time in childhood where memory is muddled, where you can never be quite sure if you’re remembering an incident you really witnessed or one you’ve been told about so often that you just think you were there, or maybe one from a story or movie.
As Christine grows older, her uncle (who is not really her uncle) sends her to a therapist, Dr. Almand. With Dr. Almand’s coaxing, Christine “remembers” a series of horrific sexual abuses. This section sits uneasily with me. It feels a bit off, reading this disturbing content while knowing from reading the back blurb that it’s not “real,” though I feel silly saying that when the book itself is fiction either way. And I know sexual abuse really happens, and that false repressed memories really happen too and that these false memories have become a hot issue in recent years. But in this case, the story almost seems to trivialize the real thing. We are asked to read these upsetting scenes even while knowing they’re just a ruse.
Later still, Christine learns the truth about the purported abuse — and also about herself. It turns out that she is the princess of a land called Chrysanthe, and that the “real world” in which she lives is actually an invented construct, a “made world,” in which she has been imprisoned. Sir Quentin, a knight from Chrysanthe, spirits her away and takes her on a road trip through the made worlds and back to Chrysanthe, where she is reunited with her father (though still traumatized by her false memories of him) and restored to her throne. From there, the politics of the realm become the central plot.
The plot moves extremely slowly. Meynard has a tendency to get bogged down in explanations of the made worlds and how they work, and of other aspects of Chrysanthe’s magic. It feels more like a philosophical treatise on the nature of reality than a story. In between these, we get a lot of mundane details of daily life that also drag at the pace. Meynard’s prose itself is striking and there are occasional moments that are exquisite, such as Christine’s musings on the blue stones of Testenel and how she imagined pictures in their irregularities as a child, a treasured memory that she now learns is real. But overall, Chrysanthe is sluggish, lacking forward momentum.
It doesn’t help that the characters are, for the most part, bloodless. Christine is afraid of her own shadow and doesn’t drive the plot much. It makes sense that her upbringing at the hands of her “uncle” might produce a timid mouse, but timid mice do not make the best fantasy protagonists. Quentin is mostly bland, and then one of the moments of depth he does get makes him perhaps more interesting, but less sympathetic. It involves his past affair with an exoticized woman from a made world, whom he left without a word; he tries to assuage his guilt with the thought that she wasn’t real. It’s another aspect of the book that sits uneasily with me. Christine’s father, King Edisthen, doesn’t really come to life in three dimensions. It turns out that he sprung up fully-grown because he was needed to depose a bad king, rather than being born and growing up in the usual way, and the trouble is that most of the characters in Chrysanthe have this feel despite not having a backstory like Edisthen’s. It feels like they are there because a typical fantasy novel needs people to fill those roles (wizard, pretender to the throne, etc.), rather than because they’re people living out their lives while we just happen to be peering in. One can never lose sight of the fact that these characters are made of letters typed on a page. Before giving up on the novel, I only encountered one character I truly found intriguing: the widow of the previous king. And at the time of my capitulation, she had only appeared on two pages.
If this were a shorter book, I might press on, but Chrysanthe is quite long and continuing to read it feels like throwing good time after bad. I would consider reading other work by Meynard, as his actual prose writing is very good, but Chrysanthe is a bust for me.