Showing posts with label Lonely Werewolf Girl. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lonely Werewolf Girl. Show all posts

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Review: Martin Millar, Lonely Werewolf Girl (Piatkus, 2009)

Given my interest in female werewolves, it's actually quite shocking that it has taken me this long to read Martin Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl. First published in 2007, Millar's book tells the story of Kalix - the eponymous 'lonely werewolf girl' - an exiled daughter of the MacRinnalch clan.

After attacking her father for banishing her lover, Kalix is exiled from her Scottish home. When the novel begins, she is drifting through the streets of London, addicted to laudanum, anorexic (except when in werewolf form) and cutting herself. As all characters, including Kalix, constantly remind us, Kalix is "mad". If this were all the book had to offer, it would still be worthy of note. Millar's portrayal of the detachment, isolation and abjection of the self-harming anorexic, as well as the matter-of-fact comfort taken in self-destructive behaviours, is both sensitive and brutal - and utterly believable. The hopeless and hostile Kalix is neither victim nor abuser, and she requests neither our sympathy nor our censure. In fact, the lonely werewolf girl doesn't seem to want any emotional engagement from anyone - not the other characters in the book, and not the readers.

But readers, like the other characters, can't help but be drawn to Millar's creation. She is violent, antagonistic and destructive - but also sweet, loyal and heart-breakingly low on self-esteem: "Kalix felt like a young and very boring werewolf with nothing interesting to say. She wanted to leave but she couldn't seem to find an opportunity to say goodbye." Although Kalix tries her best to make herself difficult to like - something that her sister Thrix also feels about her - the novel sees her negotiating a number of unexpected new relationships, against her better judgement.

While Kalix attempts to make herself as near invisible as possible in London, trouble stirs in the MacRinnalch clan's Scottish home. Kalix's father has died, partly as a result of the injuries he received during his daughter's attack. This means that a new Thane must be selected, and Kalix's brothers - Markus and Sarapen - are each determined to fight (and fight dirty) for the title. The MacRinnalch werewolves are divided between the two brothers, which leads to violence, betrayal and plotting. Dragged into this conflict are Kalix's cousins, Butix and Delix, a pair of dissolute werewolves who have changed their names to Beauty and Delicious, dyed their hair and run off to London to be rock stars. In order to secure the support of the "cousins about whom the family did not speak", Mistress of the Werewolves Verasa sends Dominil, an intellectual but cold-hearted, white wolf to act as their band manager. Dominil is possibly my favourite character in the novel as, although Beauty and Delicious write songs about her entitled "Stupid Werewolf Bitch" and "Evil White-Haired Slut", everything she says makes complete sense, and she approaches life with a logical, rather than emotional, eye.

Like all the characters in the novel, Dominil has her flaws. And this is the major strength of Millar's writing. While much fantasy literature - and, to be honest, literature in general - still clings to the Mary/Eve distinction of female characters (put her on a pedestal or condemn her to Hell), Millar's creations are far more nuanced and layered. I would go as far as to argue that Millar has created some of the most fully-rounded, three-dimensional female werewolves that you will come across. Yes - they are highly sexed, aggresive and violent. But they are also by turns vain, selfish, obstinate, illiterate, intellectual, creative, loyal, vengeful, funny, drug-addicted, talented, gentle, caring, spoilt... In other words, Millar's female werewolves are about as close to human as you can get. Without wishing to make unfair generalizations, it is refreshing to see a male writer approach female characters by privileging 'character' over 'female'.

By contrast - and, as a feminist, I had to smile at the reversal of fortunes - Millar's male characters are, on the whole, a series of near caricatures. There is Sarapen, Kalix's older brother. Sarapen is a vicious and thuggish bully, whose idea of courtship is to abduct a woman and lock her in a cell. When she refuses his 'advances', he beats her to within an inch of her life. Cross-dressing Markus is the spoilt younger brother: a vain, preening mummy's boy who treats all women as objects to boost his vanity and sense of self-worth. Gawain, Kalix's idealized lost love, plays pretty much the role of the female love interest in the majority of fantasy fiction. The only exception to this portrayal of male characters is Daniel, the human boy who attempts to help Kalix in London. Daniel is boring and hopeless with women, but has a certain hapless charm about him. As events unfold and become increasingly dangerous and strange, Daniel is revealed to be a warm, sympathetic and loyal person, who becomes more and more likable as the novel progresses.

The innovation and originality of Lonely Werewolf Girl lie not in its basic plot nor in its version of werewolf mythology- both of these are in many ways similar to other fantasy fiction. However, the characterization in the novel is striking, and it is this that makes the novel one of the strongest female werewolf stories I have read. In addition to this, Millar's storytelling is quirky and compelling. The novel contains 236 short chapters, some of which are less than a page long, and moves briskly between scenes. This technique allows Millar to strictly control pacing, which is handled very well. As the story develops, the disparate scenes begin to come together, drawing the reader onwards to the climactic scenes. The combination of dynamic storytelling and careful characterization makes the conclusion very satisfying.

So, although I come late to the party, I now strongly recommend Lonely Werewolf Girl. Well-written, eccentric and some of the most memorable female werewolves in fiction.