Saturday, July 07, 2012

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge

It sometimes seems that Frances Hardinge is the best kept secret in YA. People who have read her seem unanimous in the view that Hardinge ought to be a major superstar, whose books are greeted with fanfare and exhilaration. But though she's always well reviewed, Hardinge remains under the radar, particularly among the adult readership of YA fiction who should be embracing the sophistication and complexity of her worlds. Part of the problem, of course, is that Hardinge doesn't write the kind of dystopias that have been the dominant and popular flavor in YA since at least The Hunger Games (and that her novels skew a bit younger than those books, with pre-adolescent protagonists who rarely have romance on their minds). Or at least not blatantly, since nearly all of Hardinge’s novels take place in restrictive societies and focus on the lone voice (usually that of a young girl) that dares to challenge them. It's just that Hardinge’s dystopias are more detailed and a great deal more thought out than the “cheerleaders have been banned and the government controls pets” variety, to the extent that their restrictiveness is often not obvious on a first glance, and her protagonists are not thinly disguised modern teens, but products of their society, steeped in its culture and conventions, and often warped by it in ways that the reader might find alienating.

In my favorite of Hardinge's novels, Gullstruck Island, the restrictive society of the titular island is shaped by nature and history, most obviously by the island’s overactive volcanoes and the different attitudes that its native and colonizing inhabitants have towards them. Her latest novel, A Face Like Glass, takes the opposite approach—its setting, the underground city of Caverna, is manufactured and rooted in artifice, in the various mechanisms that Caverna’s citizens have devised in order to make a sealed underground cave system livable for hundreds of years, and the customs that ensure their continued survival in such an unnatural environment. I confess that I prefer the former approach. The emphasis on natural environment and on the pressures that nature brings to bear on human settlements in Gullstruck Island imposed a degree of realism on the way that Hardinge imagined and built the island’s society that to my mind only enriched the novel, whereas a sealed, artificial environment gives her the freedom to create outlandish customs and policies simply because that’s the way they do it here—as she did in her previous novel, Twilight Robbery, whose heroine visits a city in which people are categorized as good or evil according to which hour of the day they were born in. Happily, A Face Like Glass seems cognizant of this pitfall, and instead of using Caverna's artifice as a crutch it plays it up and makes it the focus of the novel. Caverna's society not only survives through artifice, but has made it the foundation of its culture, a highly stratified society whose upper echelons, the great families who curry for favor and advantage in the court of the Grand Steward, are locked in a subtle dance of manners, etiquette, and subtle insults (behind these fixed smiles and feigned politeness, of course, vicious rumor mills and assassination plots run rampant). But the most profound and dominant expression of Caverna's artificiality are its Faces.
In the overground world, babies that stared up at their mother's faces gradually started to work out that the two bright stars they could see above them were eyes like their own, and that the broad curve was a mouth like theirs.  Without even thinking about it, they would curve their mouths the same way, mirroring their mothers' smiles in miniature.  When they were frightened or unhappy, they would know at once how to screw up their faces and bawl.  Caverna babies never did this, and nobody knew why.  They looked solemnly at the face above them, and saw eyes, nose, mouth, but they did not copy its expressions.  There was nothing wrong with their features, but somehow one of the tiny silver links in the chain of their souls was missing.  They had to be forced to learn expressions one at a time, slowly and painfully, otherwise they remained blank as eggs. 
These learned expressions, numbered and named--"Face 41, the Badger in Hibernation"; "No. 29 - Uncomprehending Fawn Before Hound"--are a brilliant way of literalizing the fundamental falseness that lies at the core of the kind of royal court that runs Caverna. Caverna's aristocrats wear masks made of their own flesh, schooling their expressions to suit the prevailing mood, the political climate, the day’s fashion, or simply their personal goals. But Hardinge doesn't leave it at that. She works out the implications of a society in which facial expression is artificial in several fascinating ways, from the personal—a character who muses of her lover that "Every one of [his] small, dark smiles she had carefully designed for him at one time or another, to suit his face and his character.  And now these smiles had more power over her than anything else in the world."; another who is told that "There is a feeling deep down inside you ... You don't really know what it is, or how to describe it.  You do not have the Face for it.  And so you scan all the Face catalogues, and ask for Faces every birthday because perhaps, just perhaps, if you had the right Face, you might understand what you are feeling"—to the political. In Caverna, Faces are a hallmark of privilege. The rich and aristocratic can afford the fine schooling in which they are taught a wide variety of Faces, and will even hire Facesmiths to create custom expressions for them, but the poor are raised in crèches where they are taught a minimal range of expression which reflects their place in society—"Erstwhile did not have any angry or annoyed expressions.  Worker and drudge-class families were never taught such Faces, for it was assumed they did not need them." The limit to their expressiveness also serves as a way of keeping the poor in their place, as a character muses when she observes the crushing, oppressive conditions they live in.
How could the drudges rise up against bullies like the foreman?  Rebels needed to look at each other and see their own anger reflected, and know that their feeling was part of a greater tide.  But any drudge who glanced at his fellows would see only calm, tame Faces waiting for orders.
The speaker here is our heroine, Neverfell, a classic outsider-insider figure who crashes into Caverna's conventions and mores and leaves them in shambles. Found wandering the caves of the cheesemaker hermit Grandible (one of Caverna’s unique qualities, and the source of its wealth, is that among its inhabitants are craftsmen who know how to make True delicacies—"wines that rewrote the subtle book of memory, cheeses that brought visions, spices that sharpened the senses, perfumes that ensnared the mind and balms that slowed ageing to a crawl"; Hardinge therefore has a lot of fun going into the details of Grandible’s arcane and often quite dangerous cheesemaking—his cheeses explode, or give off noxious gasses, when improperly treated—and the hallucinatory, mindblowing effects of his wares), a former courtier whose rejection of corrupting society is signaled by his having only one permanent expression, Neverfell is raised in isolation until the age of thirteen. When a runaway rabbit shows her a passageway out of Grandible's tunnels (a reference that Hardinge doesn't belabor but which is nevertheless obviously on her mind), the curious, impulsive, emotionally volatile Neverfell takes the opportunity to explore a world that she has been desperately aching to see, and immediately finds herself becoming a pawn in Caverna's political games. As Grandible has concealed from Neverfell, but as we could easily have guessed (even without reading the book's back cover) , Neverfell has the titular face like glass, on which her uncontrollable emotions are immediately apparent. This makes her the object of curiosity and attention. Facesmiths want to study her; the secret police believe that she is a spy from the outside; Caverna's five hundred year old Grand Steward, whose pleasures have desiccated after such a long life, wants to live vicariously through her naked emotional responses; and powerful courtier Maxim Childersin wants her for some unspecified purpose whose darkness the naïve Neverfell, won over by Childersin's kindness, won't consider.

Hardinge has threaded the needle of Neverfell's mingled innocence and knowingness, making her both an outsider to Caverna (quite literally, as her expressive face attests) and someone who is of Caverna, a little too precisely to be entirely believable.  Raised in isolation, Neverfell knows virtually nothing about Caverna's running--the better for the characters she meets to explain it to her, and us--but her emotional investment in Caverna's values, and especially its class system--her awe at the Grand Steward and his court, or her thoughtless acceptance of the conditions of the drudges--seem more fitting for a character who has grown up steeped in its society, not locked outside of it, and their purpose is clearly to intensify Neverfell's anger and disillusionment when she gains a fuller understanding of how Caverna works.  For a novel that works hard to tell a story about artifice without calling attention to its own artificiality, this is a rare misstep, but it is lessened by the more interesting, and more prominent, aspect of Neverfell's personality, the fact that she is emotionally damaged.  It's common for YA protagonists to be unrealistically immune to trauma--consider Harry Potter's mostly sunny personality after years of abuse--but Hardinge quite refreshingly avoids this trope.  A lifetime of living underground and in near-isolation has taken its toll on Neverfell, and in ways that we might consider offputting and unattractive--she's prone to sleepwalking, to the malaise that Cavernans call being "out of clock," when their natural cycle and Caverna's artificial one fall out of sync, and to panic attacks from which she recovers "shuddering and sick, devastation around her and her fingernails broken from clawing at the rock walls and ceilings."  And, even when judged against normal standards rather than Cavernan ones, her lack of emotional control, her tendency to say and do exactly what she's thinking as she thinks it, are jarring.

A Face Like Glass is a novel about Neverfell's emotional healing, but gratifyingly, that healing doesn't take the form of her becoming more normal or conventional.  Several characters try to teach Neverfell emotional control--by which they mean, try to teach her to restrain her impulses and not to show her every emotion on her face.  What they mean by this is that Neverfell should feel less--when her friends are concerned that the Grand Steward will see Neverfell's rage over the state of the drudges in her face, they take her to a Facesmith, who tries to reason those feelings away by reassuring her that drudges prefer hard work to luxuries and are incapable of feeling true pain and sadness--but Neverfell, and Hardinge, repeatedly stress the legitimacy of her anger and sadness.  The control Neverfell needs to learn isn't of her feelings, but of her environment--how to best express her rage in a way that is productive and helps to alleviate that rage's cause.  That control is achieved, in large part, by Neverfell learning to understand herself--to uncover the trauma of her past and the effects that that trauma has had on her--but that understanding doesn't equal complete healing.  At the end of the novel, Neverfell still bears the scars of her experiences, but she's learned to live with them, and taken control of her life.

If I'm slightly less enamored of A Face Like Glass than I was of Gullstruck Island, it's because I value Hardinge's worldbuilding skills so highly, and the deliberately constructed world of Caverna--constructed both within the story and without it, as an illustrations of Hardinge's arguments about class--shows them off less impressively than Gullstruck.  But Hardinge is more than just a worldbuilder, and in Neverfell and her journey she shows off her tendency towards nuance and complexity as well as in any of her worlds.  That same nuance may be what's keeping Hardinge from becoming a superstar--her novels lack an obvious hook and don't lend themselves to a simple selling pitch--but hopefully the work of her ardent fans will help to spread her name, and make her a slightly less well-kept secret.

4 comments:

katie.m said...

Oh man! That last sentence sums up my problem selling Gullstruck Island at the kids' book store where I work. I read it on your recommendation and loved it, but I have a brutal time trying to explain it succinctly to coworkers and customers. Doesn't help that there isn't a good blurb on the back either.

I'm pumped for A Face Like Glass.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Mostly I sell Hardinge to people who have run out of Diana Wynne Jones. With Gullstruck Island I say "the funniest book about genocide, you'll read". It captures some of them. She's never going to be a superstar, but in about 20 years time, as the kids who read her grow into critics and writers, she will turn out to have been one of the Great Influences.

I was a little disappointed in this book but I'm still trying to put my finger on it. I think Neverfell is a bit too much in control compared to either Mosca or Hathin, and maybe a bit too cute and automatically liked. But a weak book from Hardinge is still far better than 95% of what I read.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Farah: That's funny, since I ended up skipping Jones as a kid (I've read Howl's Moving Castle and Castle in the Air, but that's it), and one of the things that has got me seriously planning to catch up with her writing are the comparisons between her and Hardinge.

I'm not sure I would say that Neverfell is too perfect or in control, but I suppose you could say that she has it a bit too easy. Things fall into place for her a little more smoothly than they did for Mosca or Hathin, which I suppose is because the crux of her story is less her actions as her figuring out that she's been lied to and used. Mosca and Hathin, meanwhile, are more savvy and more pro-active, which also means that they end up in more trouble as the consequences of their actions spiral out of control.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Hardinge is much darker than Jones, so I wonder if "You like Hardinge, try Jones" will work as well as in the other direction. My all time favourite Jones is Archers' Goon.

But you might like to try Rhiannon Lassiter's Bad Blood., if you haven't already. Lassiter is a friend of Hardinge and *is* influenced by Jones (whereas Hardinge comes from gaming, and has triggered lots of thoughts for me about gaming and the picaresque narrative)/

Post a Comment