Charles de Lint is my happiest discovery of the year so far. Regular readers of science fiction and fantasy may tsk tsk. The man has more than 25 novels and collections to his name, many are stories that sound right up my alley, but I didn’t know who he was until stumbling across the name online. I blame it on tunnel vision, reading mostly about debuts and familiar faces and missing out on all the great ones in between.
Meet Grace; John just did. She’s naked in his bed and he’s falling in love, which is the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen to him. She seems taken by him, too. It’s only hours after he picked her up at a club and he’s already opening up about his dead brother, who’s always on his mind. And then something strange happens: one minute she’s there, and the next she’s gone. For a moment, he has to doubt if she was ever there at all. The answer is complicated.
This is a boy meets girl story with a twist…girl died weeks before he met her. Grace isn’t happy about it either. Why couldn’t she have met John before she tripped at the worst possible moment? It doesn’t see fair, but that’s life. And death.
After a long sleep, Grace wakes up in the land of the dead, and it’s not very different from the land of the living. She’s even in the same apartment in the same town. The difference is that the population is a little sparse and there’s a foggy mist that seals the town inside itself. Try to exit through one end and your re-enter from the other side of town. It’s a dull existence that no one seems to understand.
Relief comes when Grace’s new friend, Conchita, tells her they get a “free pass” to pass over to the other side twice a year, April 30th and Halloween. Though Grace is warned that crossing back is hard for many to take, there are too many things she never got to do – the big one is to fall in love. She can’t not go back.
I might be dead, but I’m going to live as full a life as I can make for myself here.
Then we loop back to where we began on Halloween. A mechanic in her former life, Grace crosses over desperate for the escape that only loud, fast music can deliver. When a strange guy taps her on the shoulder at the club she doesn’t blow him off. And when she vanishes in the night from his apartment, she’s just as crushed as he is. She has six months to kill before she gets to see John for a few hours again. She throws herself into customizing an old junker, and trying to figure out why everybody who dies within a few blocks radius gets stuck there.
The afterlife de Lint draws is dreary in its matter-of-factness. Death here is not an abstract concept, but a thing that can be toyed with. This book is classified as SF, but it didn’t strike me as strictly genre fiction. Readers who veer towards YA for its light spin on supernatural concepts would enjoy this story. And I almost forgot to mention how very painfully good the writing is.
On the flip side, I have to agree with Fantasy Book Critic in that the ending felt a little forced. I didn’t need every nuance explained and a few minor characters could have been cut and I wouldn’t have missed them. That said, De Lint’s books have some ugly covers, but I can’t wait to read more.