Ivory’s Story, Eugen Bacon (NewCon Press 978-1-91295-077-5, £9.99, 152pp, tp) September 2020.
Eugen Bacon’s latest novel has a lot going on. A lot. Any one strand of its dense weave could blanket a whole novel’s activities and characterization in the hands of a different writer. Ivory’s Story is not a simple read, but it is a daring, rewarding read. Bacon demonstrates unusual virtuosity in tone and style and offers a rare book which is at once playful and meaningful, with well-calibrated touches of heartbreak.
As the title indicates, the heroine of this novel is Ivory, a foster child who grew up to be a police detective. The book narrates some of her awful, fractured youth – a group home’s “honeycomb mansion had no space for play, but… was full of corridors to scrub” – as well as her tenuously satisfying adult life. But Ivory is not the only character whose story Bacon tells. She also delves deeply into a mythology of her own making, one that involves unlucky twins, alien worlds with rainbow skies and red grass, and an interdimensional killer stalking modern-day Sydney. She spins a tale of Mama Pebble and her troublemaking twin boys, Ku and Doh, and the buntu that births itself from a calabash. Bacon’s language across these stories is rich and lyrical, full of idiom and invention:
Sometimes, she saw animals. All dead as wood yet alive. Creatures from a place of dreams: grubs seeping cooking juice. Crocs dripping wetting blood and what else. One thing they had in common, they were creatures she had gobbled only nights before. In her seeing, the animals were not minding their own selves and running about the yard, or scaring her own self and forcing her to scurry, they simply stood and stared solemnly by her bedside. And when they spoke, they asked why she had eaten them.
Meanwhile, in Sydney, Ivory tries to solve a series of murders with supernatural overtones. Even her fellow officers agree when she elects to consult a medicine woman on the murders, as there is no denying their weirdness: men blown open, women turned catatonic. In these sections, Bacon switches easily to hardboiled prose:
The first time she met him at a beat, they were not in uniform. It was some drug bust that didn’t happen. Pugley had made a few calls, ordered her on the streets in casuals and she found herself lumped, no introductions, with a man wearing powder blue eyes and very white, very wispy hair. He came out of a café with a takeaway cup.
These two dimensions are bound to collide, and they do, when the medicine woman transports Ivory to the other realm. In order to halt the present-day murders and save the life of her own beloved, Ivory must untangle and resolve an ancient, ill-fated love affair, one which resonates in her own blood and body.
This might sound like it’s kind of a mess, as if it’s a handful of narratives that only sort of hang together and can’t even depend on a consistent authorial style to cohere. It’s possible to read Ivory’s Story and walk away with that impression. Up close, at the page or chapter level, it does feel like a messy, inconsistent book, but standing back, the book as a whole represents a leap into sheer imagination that very few authors would dare to take. Bacon grounds the wild tale of twins and buntus in another dimension with a relatively simple detective story, or, if you like, lets a simple detective story take riotous flight into innovative, Afrofuturistic realms. It’s a book that takes tremendous risk, on the sentence level all the way up to the genres it elects to blend and bend.
“A journey has a purpose and I feel that mine hasn’t started,” Ivory says, toward the end of the novel. Here, Bacon notes her own subversion of the hero’s journey, how she has upended what the reader thought he wanted out of a book. The reader must be willing to wade into such risks with Bacon, to open up his expectations a little and let her novel tumble him through varied reading experiences. Without this willingness, alas, the book will merely confuse – but if the reader is adventurous enough, Ivory’s Story will both startle and seduce.
Katharine Coldiron is the author of Ceremonials (Kernpunkt Press), an SPD fiction bestseller. Her work as a book critic has appeared in The Washington Post, The Believer, The Guardian, and many other places. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com.
This review and more like it in the November 2020 issue of Locus.
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