In our Edge of the Universe column, we review books that may not be classified SFF but that incorporate elements of speculative fiction. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.
Evelyn and Brendan are both students at Oxford when they meet in the tiny Cornish town of Clews, where Evelyn is taking a much-needed break and Brendan is working in his father’s bookstore. A romance begins to bloom between the two, and Brendan shares with Evelyn his favorite legend: a local Arthurian variant about star-crossed lovers Gawan and Elowen. Then something uncanny occurs, and Evelyn and Brendan part and lose touch. Ten years later they meet again while teaching at Bartlett College in Virginia. They reconnect, but still all is not smooth…
Theodora Goss unfolds this love story in a unique format. The book is printed in an accordion fashion, with printing on both sides, so that if you open the book one way you read the story from Brendan’s point of view, and then you can flip it over, open it again, and read Evelyn’s. Or vice versa, because you can start with either. The downside to this is that it lacks the usual spine binding, so it is more difficult to hold than a “regular” book. There are four illustrations: one each of Evelyn, Brendan, Gawan, and Elowen. The book comes in a beautiful slipcover whose design calls to mind a medieval tapestry. The book as a physical object is a work of art in and of itself.
Inside is a story of love found and lost and found again — both within Evelyn and Brendan’s own lives and possibly over the course of a thousand years, as it’s suggested that these present-day lovers may be the reincarnations of the ones from the legend. It’s also a story of creativity lost and found. Both lovers are writers whose imaginative minds often go unappreciated by those around them and even in academia: one of Evelyn’s professors tells her to stop writing poetry on “fanciful” topics, and Brendan at one point realizes he’d rather write a story than write about stories. During the course of the book, the two characters are each navigating their own relationship with their creativity in addition to their relationship with each other.
Perhaps the most clever aspect of the “two-sided” story is that, no matter which one you start with, the ending is unresolved. But when you read the other side, it fills in other details about the ending that give it more of a sense of resolution. There is still ambiguity, but one can make a pretty good guess what will happen next.
I’m slightly uneasy with the parallel drawn between the character of Isabel and one of the figures from the legend. It seemed that this somewhat hampered the reader’s capacity to feel sympathy for her, when Isabel had done nothing wrong in this life (and possibly not ever, depending on whether the reincarnation is real).
The Thorn and the Blossom is a short read; each of the two versions of the story is only about 40 pages long. You can read it in one leisurely afternoon. The way the two perspectives play off one another, however, may have you wanting to read it again!