マッシュルームマン 単行本 – 2004/1
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Six-year-old Lily Newman accompanies her mother, Charlotte, on a late-summer visit to her Aunt Beth's sheep farm in the middle of wild Welsh countryside. Beth, whom Charlotte considers to have greatly disappointed their parents by marrying a humble carpenter, now lives with her son and triplet daughters, her husband having died two years earlier.
While staying on the farm, Lily becomes fixated with a fairy tale her cousins make up about a Mushroom Man and vanishes one morning into the nearby forest. The adults suspect an abductor, while the children wonder if, indeed, their story about the Mushroom Man and his invisible-making powers has come true. As each group pursues their own solutions, relationships are strained and carefully constructed facades come crumbling down.
With sparkling prose, The Mushroom Man explores the fine border between reality and myth, and introduces Sophie Powell as a wry and sophisticated new talent in fiction.
I seem to have a lot of pet peeves regarding literature, but one of the big ones is false advertising. When I read a book's dust jacket and am promised one story, then open the book to find a different story entirely, I feel cheated. I get that the people who write dust-jacket blurbs have to sell their books somehow, but I expect them to at least be somewhat truthful and not promise me a book that's completely different from the one I purchased. So it's with great dismay that I have to report that "The Mushroom Man," a novel that promised the "magic of Celtic myth" and an exploration of "the shimmering border between fantasy and reality" in its dust jacket... only to find a dreary, squicky, and far-too-busy tale about unlikable characters and their messy lives, without any of the magic and wonder promised by the cover.
"The Mushroom Man" opens with Charlotte, a neurotic and overprotective London mother who is paying a long-overdue visit to her sister Beth, her precocious daughter Lily in tow. Charlotte makes it clear that she looks down on Beth, a widowed artist living on a farm with her teenage son and triplet daughters, and despises her lifestyle and the now-deceased man she married. But Lily is enchanted by the farm and by her cousins, especially when one of them spins a tale for her about the Mushroom Man, a hermit with mystical powers who's on good terms with the fairies of the forest. This tale comes back to bite the triplets when Lily announces she's met the Mushroom Man in the forest... and then vanishes during a game of hide-and-seek. As Charlotte falls apart and Beth tries to drive two incompetent policemen to organize a search for the missing girl -- aided by Charlotte's husband, who's been having an affair with Lily's nanny -- the triplets decide it's up to them to find Lily, and they organize the children of the nearby village on a search through the woods to find the missing girl.
I will throw the author one small bone -- her writing style can be quite lovely, with clever and beautiful wordplay and vivid descriptions. This can work against her, however, as she sometimes spends time describing things that really don't need described at the expense of the plot. And even clever wordplay can be revolting when she chooses to use it to graphically describe the philandering husband's sexual fantasies, or a pair of used condoms hidden in the woods. Ick.
The rest of the book... I can't believe it's gotten such rave reviews, both here on Amazon and elsewhere. The book is a mess, its plot wandering about haphazardly and skipping from one character to another like it has ADD. We get POV segments from Charlotte, Beth, Beth's teenage son, the triplets (who might as well all be one entity -- twins and triplets don't have to share personalities, writers), Charlotte's husband, Lily, Lily's nanny, a local pastor in town who has a crush on Beth, the cops... There are so many POV characters that it gets exhausting keeping track of them all. It doesn't help that most of these characters get their own story arc, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing in a longer novel... but when "The Mushroom Man" clocks in at less than two hundred pages, that's just way too many story lines to cram into one book. The book either needed to be longer, or some of these characters and story arcs needed to be trimmed and others fleshed out a bit more.
Also, there are a lot of scenes and subplots in this book that feel pointless. Did we really need an entire story arc devoted to the nanny? Or a scene where Charlotte buys and destroys a lace thong? Or the teenage son's outings with his girlfriend and their daydream of following the nearby river to the sea? I understand this is the author's debut novel, but she should still know what's important to keep and what needs to be cut out. I know it hurts trimming scenes you loved from a novel, but sometimes it's necessary to keep the story straight.
As for the "Celtic myth" and "fantasy" elements of this story... the only fantasy element is the fairy tale the triplets make up for Lily, and her childish insistence that the Mushroom Man is real. That's it. If you're expecting magical realism or any fantasy or mythological elements whatsoever, you're going to be greatly disappointed. The novel wants to make a big to-do about the fact that Lily insists she spent time with the Mushroom Man, and that her disappearance is oh-so-mysterious, but the author shows no hints that anything out of the ordinary happened to Lily apart from being lost in the woods and daydreaming about the Mushroom Man. I wouldn't make such a big deal out of this if the novel's description were honest, but when I'm promised a semi-magical story, I'm annoyed when I don't get what I expected.
And finally, the characters. Long story short -- there's not a likable character in this bunch. Charlotte is a screeching neurotic mess of a woman, her husband is a philandering jerk who pulls a complete 180 in the middle of the story for plot's sake, the teenage son is nothing but a sack of hormones, the nanny is contemptuous and greedy, the police are entirely useless, Lily has almost no personality of her own, and the triplets all might as well be a single entity seeing as they all act and think alike anyhow. Beth is the closest thing this book has to a likable character, but she alone isn't enough to carry the book.
This is a mess of a book, full of scenes and subplots that go nowhere and characters I would rather see walk into traffic than read about again. And if you're expecting a book that sprinkles a little magic in with its realism, this isn't it -- none of the myth and un-reality promised in the dust jacket crop up at all. If you want a book that balances family drama with myth or fantasy, I highly recommend Neil Gaiman's "The Ocean At the End of the Lane" or Matthew Dicks' "Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend" instead of this dreck.
If you're looking for intelligent writing that employs a child's viewpoint without insulting the intelligence of the adult reader, there are many, many options out there more satisfying than this novel: Alison McGhee's amazing SHADOW BABY; Erri de Luca's luminous GOD'S MOUNTAIN; N. M. Kelby's IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS; Polly Whitney's stunning THIS IS GRACEANNE'S BOOK; Ben Rice's POBBY & DINGAN; Sharon Wyse's THE BOX CHILDREN; Gaetan Soucy's THE LITTLE GIRL WHO WAS TOO FOND OF MATCHES; Eliza Minot's THE TINY ONE; Elizabeth Graver's THE HONEY THIEF; Kathy Hepinstall's THE ABSENCE OF NECTAR; Brian Hall's THE SASKIAD...the list goes on and on. Some of these novels feature very young characters - some of them are more `coming-of-age' novels - but they're all superb.