This week I’m recommending `Of Bees and Mist’, a novel by Erick Setiawan which features a character who may be the world’s most sinister mother-in-law.  Some reviewers called this book `an adult fairy tale’ but I would put it on the Magical Realism shelf.  `Of Bees and Mist’ was first published in 2010 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook. Setiawan was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents and moved to America when he was sixteen. He acknowledges his mother’s stories as one of the main inspirations for his debut novel. Some of them must have been ghost and horror stories.  Before we go any further – a health and safety warning. If  you happen to be pregnant, you might want to avoid this book. It is full of gruesome childbirth scenes and dead babies.

In an unnamed town a young girl called Meridia grows up in an unnaturally cold house where ghosts haunt the mirrors and an ivory mist always hovers over the front door. Her scientist father, Gabriel, seems to despise her and her bitter mother, Ravenna, doesn’t even remember that she has a daughter most of the time. Meridia is troubled by a recurring nightmare about something terrible that happened when she was small. Her nurse tells Meridia that Gabriel and Ravenna were once a loving couple who only began to quarrel after a mysterious wind got into the house. Before she can explain any further, the nurse is banished and Meridia is even more alone.

At thirteen, Meridia realizes that the ivory mist, and the yellow mist that surrounds her father whenever he leaves the house, are created by the  anger and jealousy Ravenna feels because Gabriel spends every night with his mistress. Meridia longs to be a comfort to her mother but the distance between them seems greater than ever. At fourteen, Meridia finds a friend whom nobody else can see, which gives her the confidence to explore her home town. At sixteen, she meets handsome Daniel during the Festival of the Spirits and falls `into devastating love’. Ignoring some sinister omens, Daniel proposes and introduces Meridia to his family – his father, Elias who runs a jewellery shop, his vibrant mother Eva, and his two very different younger sisters. Gabriel opposes the match so Ravenna supports Meridia but warns her, `do not repeat my mistakes.’

Meridia and Daniel’s `fairy tale’ wedding is not the end of the story. Meridia soon finds herself treated like a servant by her domineering mother-in-law.  She learns some dark secrets about Daniel’s family and struggles to help the victims of Eva’s domestic cruelty. When the young wife asserts her independence, it triggers an obsessive feud between Eva and Meridia. A feud which only worsens when Meridia gives birth to a son. Eva uses her distinctive form of magic to harass Elias and Daniel and bend them to her will. As the links which bind the two unhappy families become plainer, Meridia’s own marriage is threatened. Is there any hope that Meridia and Daniel can escape the curses that have blighted their parents’ lives?

`Of Bees and Mist’ has all the passion of Latin American Magical Realism without the politics. This is a novel more interested in families than nations, and the characters and setting are more important than the plot. In contrast to the speed and sparseness of traditional fairy tales (see my recent post on `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’), this narrative is slow moving and filled with luscious descriptions which build up an exotic atmosphere. Setiawan pulls off the clever trick of making the setting both very vague and very specific. Vague because we are never told the era and country in which the story takes place, just that Meridia lives `in the only part of the world where snow fell but never chilled, where the sun blazed with tropical intensity but never scorched’.  I pictured the period as early 20th century, since photographs and silent films are mentioned but there seems to be little else in the way of technology.

Meridia’s home town and its inhabitants display the odd mixture of eastern and western elements you often find in Japanese manga and animé. The names of the characters come from a variety of cultures and their physical characteristics from a variety of races. This gives the story a universal quality but could also have made it bland. That’s avoided through all the specific detail about what people eat and wear and about the objects, buildings and gardens which reflect the differing lifestyles of Meridia and Daniel’s families. Food is particularly well used in this book. One market-trader grows herbs on her own body and another swallows radishes and `spits them out chopped, seasoned, and pickled’, Meridia learns to enjoy life with her alter ego Hannah while feasting on strawberry sandwiches, deep-fried potato cakes, cinnamon pastries and preserved mango slices, and Ravenna furiously cooks for her husband eighteen dishes, such as `broiled snowfish sprinkled with nutmeg’ and `veal garnished with peaches and palm sugar’,  to mark `Eighteen years of grief and regret’. It’s the Fantasy version of fusion cusine.

The inhabitants of Meridia’s town (which almost counts as a character in its own right) also have a weird mix of beliefs, customs and superstitions.  The older generation at least still lives in fear of ghosts and spirits, so when someone is ill exorcists and soothsayers are summoned as well as doctors, fires are always kept burning in the Cemetery of Ashes and people hope to be transformed into light so that their souls will `drift like fireflies’ in an Immortal Forest. Setiawan draws on the Oriental concept of ghosts and demons being created by unfulfilled desires and uncontrolled emotions – especially those of women (see also `Peony in Love’ my Halloween recommendation for 2012). The envy of the townspeople physically strikes at happy couples, the chill that sets into Gabriel and Ravenna’s marriage after Meridia’s birth literally lowers the temperature of their home and Eva’s emotional abuse of her family manifests itself as a swarm of bees, buzzing with malice. Eva also uses pet animals to manipulate their owners’ feelings and blind them to the truth, but objects given with love can be imbued with the power to dispel this dark domestic magic.

In spite of all the magic there is nothing unrealistic about the emotional history of the two families at the heart of this story. They argue about money and the proper way to bring up children, and face common dilemmas such as how can a marriage survive when the wife goes off sex after having a baby? Setiawan makes it clear that his characters are vulnerable to magic because of their human failings. Gabriel and Ravenna are too proud to discuss their problems, Elias nearly always takes the line of least resistance, and Meridia’s secretive nature allows Eva to make her look like a disloyal wife. Eva herself becomes a monster because she demands that each member of her family love her far more than anyone else. The men in this book seem weak besides the central trio of strong-willed women – Meridia, Ravenna and Eva. The two older women change considerably in the course of the story. Eva misdirects all her energies into power-struggles and revenge but it’s a delight to see jealous Ravenna softening into the role of protective mother and loved grandmother. Meridia may be a rather reserved heroine but her constant fear of slipping into invisibility will strike a chord with many readers. `Of Bees and Mist’ is a family saga enriched by the Fantasy elements. If you like this novel at all, you will probably want to read it several times. Until two weeks time…