“One night he woke and it was spread around the moonlit room like oil dribbled on water; its bare organs leaned in a clump near the door, swaying very gently.” –The Night Lily (p.130)
Margo Lanagan is an Australian writer of short stories and Young Adult fiction. Her 2004 book of short stories, Black Juice, won the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2005. White Time is Lanagan’s first short story collection, and was published in Australia in 2000 and America in 2006. It contains ten short stories of speculative fiction.
It was Neil Gaiman’s glowing recommendation of Lanagan’s Black Juice which first brought the author to my attention. Black Juice’s opening story, “Singing my Sister Down”, is a mesmerizing piece of short fiction which left a deep impression on me when I first read it. So, I was looking forward to reading this, her first collection, and comparing the two books. (Which means a re-read of Black Juice is in order!)
Readers are dropped into Lanagan’s worlds with minimal exposition. Accordingly, I will try to keep my summaries free of too much explanation and as spoiler-free as possible.
The opening story, “White Time”, has teenager Sheneel starting her work experience at the “Commenwealth Time Laboratories”. Deep underground, in pockets of “white time”, time travellers sometimes become trapped. The job involves helping these travellers move on. The only problem is time spent in these “pockets” can cause forgetfulness. There are some novel ideas in here and the story grows in suspense as we progress.
“She slammed herself against the black door. Her chest-light caught something – but only an entity, one of those streaky patches of vapour. What had happened? Where had she been?” – “White Time” (p.32)
“Dedication” tells the story of a “Royal Dresser” having to dress one member of the royal family for a final time. It is a moving portrayal of a job that most would give little thought to performing. I admired the way Lanagan gradually revealed character details in such a short tale.
“Tell and Kiss” explores the idea of weight gain being linked to our emotional baggage rather than what we eat or drink. The longer we hold on to our troubles, the more weight we put on.
“The Queen’s Notice” places the reader inside an ant colony as one worker’s defense of the nest catches the Queen’s attention. There are some rich descriptions of the senses ants may experience during their mating rituals.
“Big Rage” is a wonderful story of what happens when a young woman finds an injured man on the beach. His being dressed in full armour and armed with a long sword means he must be a cosplayer from a nearby convention, right? This was one of my favourites. I found it clever, funny, and emotionally uplifting.
“I rinse it clean in the water bowl. It bubbles underwater, and keeps up a soft hiss when I take it out. It’s halfway between a bullet and an arrow, a battered silver cone with four sharp fins sticking out the sides.” – Big Rage (p.105)
“The Night Lily” is a tale of a young boy living in a warzone. One day, he finds something strange outside and brings it home. Lanagan keeps the reader guessing as to what it is.
“The Boy Who Didn’t Yearn” introduces us to Tess Maxwell, a girl who can see more than most people. Her gift allows her to “read” people in a unique way, and she uses this skill to make a living: “My work makes it hard for me to like people.” (p.99)
“Midsummer Mission”, although written earlier, reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, specifically The Wee Free Men (2003). In Lanagan’s short story, four pixies bearing the delightful names: Hat, Snap, Motto and Trinket go on a mission to influence the emotions of a sleeping boy. This is a sweet and funny tale which contains some bawdy language.
“Welcome Blue” is the name of the flowers Quaid is harvesting in his fields. He employs Eleanor to assist him with the harvest. With the scheduled arrival of “the gods” imminent, will Quaid be tempted to sell some of his blooms to the wealthy townspeople? And what will the gods make of their welcome?
“Wealth” is the last story in this collection. In this tale, wealth is measured in the length and luster of the hair on a person’s head. Rill has a talent for growing such “wealth.” She finds herself obligated to work in order to aid her brother and grandmother. This is a tale about class, oppression, and familial duty.
White Time is a solid collection of short stories, each with its own unique flavor. Some are better than others, which will be subjective to each reader. They all have something interesting to say and are definitely worth reading, irrespective of whether you enjoy YA speculative fiction or not. Saying that, none of the stories impressed me quite as much as “Singing My Sister Down” from Lanagan’s next collection, Black Juice. Perhaps this reveals the earlier, less experienced writer that Lanagan was at this point in her writing career. Or it shows just how good a story “Singing” is. This is a minor criticism, though. If you are looking for imagination, or something different, then I recommend either of Margo Lanagan’s collections: White Time (2000) or Black Juice (2004).