Review: Harlequin’s Riddle by Rachel Nightingale

Here’s my review of a sensational debut novel by Australian author and award-winning playwright, Rachel Nightingale. It might look like a YA fantasy novel, but don’t be fooled! Read on and discover why I am in rapture over this book.

“The Gazini Players are proud to present
For your Edification and Enjoyment
Tales of great Joy, and of great Woe

Ten years ago, Mina’s beloved older brother disappeared with a troupe of travelling players, and was never heard from again.

On the eve of Mina’s own departure with a troupe, her father tells her she has a special gift for story telling, a gift he silenced years before in fear of her ability to call visions into being with her stories.

Mina soon discovers that the travelling players draw their powers from a mysterious place called Tarya, where dreams are transformed into reality. While trying to solve the mystery of her brother’s disappearance, she discovers a dark secret to the players’ onstage antics. Torn between finding her brother or exposing the truth about the players, could her gifts as a story teller offer a way to solve Harlequin’s riddle?”

*****

It is a stark fact that for the last few decades the major players in the book publishing industry have chosen to be led by their sales teams, and commissioning editors must bow to their publisher’s bottom line. Editors may fall in love with a story, want to praise it from the rooftops, but they are stuck with having to tell the author the harsh truth that their sales department, not known for vision and decidedly risk averse, have deemed the work unsaleable. It happens time and again that a truly great work slips through the cracks and ends up – because it IS truly a great work – being picked up by one of the lesser known small presses. If you want to read excellent original fiction, hunt out works released by reputable small presses.

Harlequin’s Riddle is one of those books, for Rachel Nightingale has composed a work of remarkable vision and depth of insight, a work narrated in an accessible and enchanting style; gentle, inviting, sensory, like silk and gossamer. The pace is slow at first, but never meandering, and quickens at each plot point, as what begins as a quest evolves into a dark mystery.

 Harlequin’s Riddle is a story of illusion and make believe in art and theatre. The novel opens with Mina watching a travelling theatre troupe perform in her village as she misses her older brother, Paolo, who took off with a troupe a decade before, and never returned. She was seven when he left, and she’s seventeen when with her mother’s blessing she joins the theatre troupe in the hope of finding him. The reader is swept along on the aspirations, hopes and dreams of innocence, a false innocence for Mina’s childhood scars are many, and the grief and anguish and betrayal are buried so deep Mina is numb to them, until they surface and form a destabilising force, propelling her into understanding and ultimately wholeness.

Despite the fictitious setting, Nightingale paints an evocative portrait of medieval Italy with its rugged coastline, its quaint villages, forests and northern lakes. The author’s depiction of the theatre troupe with their colourful sets and costumes is vibrant and alive and enthralling, the reader provided a privileged view, looking over Mina’s shoulder at the other players and the audience. Much of the story involves the travellers journeying in their wagons to the Festival of Lights held in the large city of Aurea, and again, the reader is swept along for the ride as the troupe cope with various dramas and adventures along the way. There is much here to entertain every reader, young and old, the final quarter of the novel dripping with visual splendour.

On another level, Harlequin’s Riddle is less a tale of Mina’s quest to find her brother, and more a study of the nature of imagination and creativity, that curious moment of conjuring, bringing into being that which we inwardly see, and seeing that which we inwardly describe – words and pictures, which comes first? The creative process, at the moment of conception, differs between the arts and among artists, but always there is a point of manifestation and it is this that fills the pages of Harlequin’s Riddle.

Coupled with the theme of creativity and the creative process are ideas of spirituality and healing, the very quality we access when we transcend ordinary reality in creative imaginative acts, is also a powerful source of beneficial transformation and healing. Nightingale calls this multidimensional realm Tarya. It is what esotericists call the ‘inner planes’, and it is here that the deeper essence of Harlequin’s Riddle is apparent. 

Entering Tarya involves altering your state of awareness, undergoing an out of body experience, and engaging in astral travel. Tarya is the realm of the shaman, the magus, the trickster, the psychopomp. Here is a small taste of Tarya.

“A subtle buzzing of hidden energy surrounded her. She looked down on distant mountains, and nearby trees, and people, many people, and each shape glimmered with light, layer upon layer of light, blurring outlines of real objects. There were intricate spiderwebs laid across the whole scene, gold threads wrapped around and over everything.”

In the villages, the players are feared for it is known they have occult or arcane power, one that destroys as it sets out to give joy. Unlike the players, Mina has the gift of storytelling, and she accesses Tarya differently, going far beyond the realms accessed by the players, realms that are connected to the  living earth, to enter the purer planes of existence, where spiritual wisdom resides. This innate ability sets her apart, leads her into danger and ultimately drives her quest.

There is much to reflect on in Harlequin’s Riddle, and much to appreciate. Harlequin’s Riddle  is a story to lose yourself in, and can be read on many levels. It isn’t necessary to understand anything about the occult or arcani to appreciate the novel, although the astute reader will recognise Harlequin’s Riddle  as a transpersonal journey, one of initiation and healing. Nightingale has penned a unique and exquisite tale that deserves to be widely known, a story with a depth of awareness and understanding that will hold special appeal to those with an interest in alternative spiritualities. In the final analysis, Harlequin’s Riddle a work of intelligence and refinement that I can only compare to an Ursula le Guin, with overtones of Umberto Eco in theme but not in compositional style. A visionary fiction masterpiece.

Harlequin’s Riddle is available through all good booksellers.

 

The Prague Cemetery – a belated review

The number of authors fascinated by metaphysics and the supernatural never ceases to make me wonder about the relationship between the creative psyche and that vast realm of the imagination.

There are those who immerse themselves in mythical and symbolic riches and create complex fantasy landscapes. I’m not a huge reader of fantasy and can only mention Ursula le Guin’s The Earthsea Trilogy, which I have read and thought amazing.

Others tackle the metaphysical side of reality in more direct ways, taking journeys into the supernatural and occult. Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems a good early example.

There are the magical realists from Jorge Luis Borges on, who include the paranormal in their stories as if it were a given. Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is just one example.

Then there are those who embed their insights to give shape to themes. I think of how Doris Lessing’s interest in Sufism inspired her Canopus in Argos Archives.

And it seems that down the ages many writers, along with artists, composers and scientists have had more than a passing interest in the occult. I found a list on a website of Rosicrucians and was astonished to find Bram Stoker, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Yeats, Satie, Edith Piaf and Walt Disney on the list, along with more obvious suspects, such as Jacob Boehme and Francis Bacon. I have no idea how accurate the list is or how immersed in Rosicrucianism each person listed may have been.

ECO

I do know a fair bit about the occult though, or western esotericism as it is more properly called. Which is why I found Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery such a compelling read.

The Prague Cemetery might seem at first like a cook’s tour of the upheavals and power struggles of Europe at the time, written from the perspective of a fierce anti-semite. The basic plot is very simple, the reader uncertain as to whether the protagonist, the repugnant Simonini, has a split personality.

Following Freud’s thinking on the matter, Simonini, who seems to have no idea himself, decides to write a diary to find out. What ensues is a journey through the latter part of he nineteenth century, as Simonini, a master forger of documents, becomes immersed in a web of lies, misinformation, and elaborate inventions of truth designed to discredit the Freemasons and the Jews. Simonini is an unscrupulous psychopath, who works for the secret service of first Italy, then France. What is remarkable is that every other character in The Prague Cemetery existed in reality and all the historical events and those involved are verifiable.

While much has been made of Eco’s fictional depiction of the notorious The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a complete invention that inspired Hitler decades later, in my view a subtler and more general point is being made.

That behind the scenes of history there are those hard at work creating one conspiracy theory after another, whether in fiction or as apparent fact, in other words conspiring to accuse others of a conspiracy in order to fulfil their own agenda, an agenda as simple as personal greed.

I salute the author for hammering this point. For it is my contention that the ultimate coup of the propagandists today is the discrediting of the very conspiracy theories they themselves have created in order to cement in the zeitgeist the view that all conspiracy thinking is rubbish, thus allowing them a huge freedom to continue to conspire.

Umberto Eco’s interest in western esotericism is well known. Through his fiction he explores this world within the world while keeping himself distant from it. An observer, not a practitioner. A thinker who questions and probes, not an adherent who adopts without question. It is this distance that allows him to write works like The Prague Cemetery.