The Uncertain Places
Lisa Goldstein, Tachyon Publications, 2011, 237 pp
The story invariably begins with ‘once upon a time’ and ends ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. The protagonist unthinkingly makes a bad bargain and inadvertently agrees to a sacrifice he or she later realises is unacceptable. Usually, the resourceful hero or heroine manages to trick the fairy into undoing the bargain and restoring the status quo, while conveniently retaining the benefits of the bargain. But what if the fairy is smarter than the protagonist after all, and, in undoing the bad bargain, offers one that was far worse in the long run but without any immediate bad effects? And what if the effects of that bargain persist into the present day? What happens then? These questions sit at the heart of Lisa Goldstein’s The Uncertain Places, which intertwines the secret history of a lost fairy story with a period of immense social upheaval in California.
This particular story begins in 1971, with best friends, Will and Ben, who are students at Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. We often look back to that time with nostalgia, as though it were some kind of magical period, but for Will in particular, ‘There was never music like that, never those intense discussions, never so many people so passionately committed to changing the world.’ In the middle of this is Will, ‘stupified with wonder, startled and delighted at every turn’, and never more so than when he travels with Ben, north out of San Francisco and into the wine country of Napa Valley to visit the Feierabends, the family of Ben’s new girlfriend, Maddie.
The Feierabend house seems also to have emerged from a fairytale, ‘as if Hansel and Gretel’s witch had taken a correspondence course in architecture’. It is not so much a house as a series of houses, each one concealing something older behind it, and this, as it turns out, provides a useful metaphor for the Feierabend family and for its stories. Livvy, Rose, Maddie and their mother, Sylvie, seem to live at a tangent to the world, engaging with it but remaining somehow untroubled by it. They live comfortably, almost unthinkingly, among beautiful things. Whatever they turn their hands to, they are successful, and indeed expect to be, none more so than Maddie, who sees no reason to doubt that she will have a career in Hollywood. Livvy and Rose are more self-effacing but neither do they question their luck, perhaps simply because this is how their lives have always been. Theirs is an enviable lifestyle, almost a dream in itself, and Will finds it difficult to believe that he too has become part of the fairytale when he and Livvy begin a relationship.
However, from the outset, Will suspects that there is something odd about the family. In the house and the countryside around, he meets strange people whose presence cannot be accounted for. When Livvy inexplicably falls asleep and the family refuse to do anything about this, instead behaving as though it is entirely normal, he realises that something is indeed very wrong. It is thanks to Ben that Will learns about the lost Grimms’ fairytale, the story of the Bondmaid, told by Klara Feierabend to the Grimm brothers but then apparently suppressed before it could be published. The original Bondmaid fell permanently asleep as payment for her family being rescued from poverty; later her father renegotiated the bargain so that she would sleep for only seven years, on the understanding that in all future generations of the family, one member would at some point fall asleep for seven years to continue the payment. While asleep, the bondmaid would help the fairy folk to wage war against their enemies and keep magic alive in the world, or so the story went. Subsequent generations did not question the renegotiated bargain and even when they did, their misgivings have been brushed to one side. It falls to Will, the outsider, to question the Feierabends’ complacent acceptance of this situation, and to ask whether such an old bargain can persisist in the modern world.
It’s an interesting question that Goldstein poses, and there is no easy answer to be found. What constitutes a ‘happy ever after’ for one person may bring misery to another. Perhaps the stories of one continent cannot survive transplantation to another without being somehow changed in the process. No matter how carefully hidden away they might be, sooner or later, as the territory is charted, they’re brought into the light of day. It’s what happens then that Goldstein has so intriguingly explored in this deeply absorbing novel.