Ekaterina Sedia has been one of those writers that I’ve always been “meaning to read a book by”. That is, I’ve been a fan of her short fiction (insert plug for Dark Faith here) and had made a note to keep my eye out for some of her longer work. Because Paul Jessup constantly whispers in my ear like the Jiminy Cricket of speculative fiction, I picked up her book The House of Discarded Dreams (as well as Genevieve Valentine’s Mechanique, but anything I have to say about Mechanique has already been covered by Nick Kaufmann).
Booklist describes The House of Discarded Dreams like this: “Vimbai, who studies invertebrate zoology because of a fascination with horseshoe crabs, moves into the house on the beach in order to escape her Zimbabwean immigrant mother’s intensity; she finds something strange and beautiful. There are two roommates: [Felix], who has a pocket universe where his hair should be, and Maya, who works in an Atlantic City casino. Vimbai’s dead grandmother haunts them, a ghostly presence who tells Zimbabwean children’s stories and does the dishes. When the house comes unmoored and drifts away to sea, Vimbai must bargain with ghostly horseshoe crabs, untangle the many and varied stories that have come loose in the vast worlds of the house, and find a way home. From Maya’s urban nightmares to Vimbai’s African urban legends, the house is filled with danger and beauty and unexpected magic.”
It’s easy to get lost in the lush, unfamiliar world Sedia creates, however, its unfamiliarity is one of its best parts. Drawing on African myths, with an African American woman as protagonist, The House of Discarded Dreams is a creative journey of self-discovery. Vimbai’s self-exploration questions her sexuality, her cultural identity, and her passage into adulthood.
The emotional core of the book is Vimbai’s attempts to find her own way despite the long shadow cast by her mother. Sedia perfectly captures not only the immigrant experience, a familiar thread in her work, but also that struggle of being caught between cultures. [I’m either biased or an authority. Besides majoring in Biology in college, I’m the son of a Jamaican mother and an American dad, but I was born in England. My mother’s Jamaican heritage was such a force in our household that she often referred to us (African Americans) as “you people.” ]
There are times when the sheer imagination of the book threatened to overpower the narrative with its anything could happen anytime sensibility. Thus Vimbai was never truly in jeopardy because some new magic would manifest to save her. Felix, as a character, gets lost in the shuffle. There are times when the story seems to meander, caught up in its own sense of whimsy, but this novel isn’t meant to be a thrill ride romp. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age fairy tale where the power of fantasy (and story) isn’t left behind, but embraced.
I know I was late coming to this party, but I didn’t want folks to have slept on a gratifyingly original fantasy novel. The bottom line is that Ekaterina Sedia usually leaves me feeling like I under-imagine my stories. Or for that matter, that we don’t see enough magic in life.