Spoilers ahead, so beware if you haven’t read this yet.
And the skin, oh yes,the skin was green as sin. Not an ugly colour, Nanny thought. Just not a human colour.
Gregory Maguire, Wicked.
I started this week with every intention of enjoying a non-fiction about Antartica – full of mystery, largely inhospitable to humans, who wouldn’t want to learn more about the continent? Certainly, I do!
Alas, I made the fatal error of stepping into a bookshop – the Oxfam bookshop on Byres Road in Glasgow is one of my favourites and no matter how good I say I’ll be, I always leave with an arm full of books. This one cost £8.99 on Amazon, and I got it for £2.49!
This story starts out when the Witch’s mother is pregnant with her, there’s every indication that her childhood will be a happy one – her mother is a bit wild, her father a bit of a fanatic but they love one another and seem to be looking forward to being parents.
Unfortunately, no story on the origins of an evil Witch is likely to be a happy one, and from the offset, Elphie’s life is grim and overcast, like vicious rainclouds. There are hints of her parents having a polyamorous relationship with a Quadling, which I found interesting in that it’s the last thing I excepted to find in a story based in Oz.
Every so often the story jumps a number of years into the future so we can follow Elphie through the very different, but all defining, stages of her life. Shiz is a wonderful time in her life, compared to what came before and what is to follow – she is forced together with the snobby Galinda, studies life sciences and assists her favourite Professor with his personal experiments to find exactly what defines an Animal and an animal. Personally, I love the development of Oz – Maguire takes a fairly one-dimensional outline and builds an entire world around it. He doesn’t overshadow or take anything away from L. Frank Baum’s original story if anything he vastly improves upon it – giving it the kind of depth I missed in the original (am I terrible for not particularly liking Dorothy?)
The years at Shiz are fundamental to the story, we slowly learn of the supposed Wizard of Oz, his coup of the throne and the Banns he places on the Animal population of Oz. Is he quite so Wonderful as we were lead to believe? Elphie certainly doesn’t think she, she drags Glinda with her to the Emerald City to visit His Highness, to beg him to reconsider. He doesn’t, and Elphie gets to see first hand what a cruel ruler he is. Disgusted, she sends Glinda back to Shiz alone and goes underground.
In the future once more, Elphie has gone from a prickly, know-it-all life sciences student, to a lonely, bitter terrorist as part of an Animal Rights activist cell. We get to see Elphie in love, her difficulty with allowing someone close to her, and the utter despair she feels when her own actions lead to his death. As she has always done, Elphie runs away again.
Her entire motivation in life from then on is to get forgiveness for her part in her lovers’ death, she travels some way to his widow’s home with a strange boy companion in tow. Along the way she collects animals, various different familiars, despite having no real skill for sorcery, she is slowly becoming the Witch. As the story progresses she grows more and more cold, stubborn and unforgiving she is quick to anger and feels nothing for young Liif, the bastard son of her lover. It’s unclear at this stage if she is his mother, and she herself doesn’t know either.
Her development is wonderfully done, we’re able to relate to her throughout, to feel sympathy for her and, at certain stages, feel disgust and disgrace as she does. In the end, she descends willingly into madness, finally driven there by a lifetime of a whole word mounting against her, and by one Dorothy Gale begging for forgiveness in her part in the death of the Witch’s sister. Why should she be expected to offer the one thing that she herself was always denied?!
In the end, she dies as we always knew she did. It leaves a sour taste in your mouth, as the whole tone of the story has shifted in the final few pages. You can’t help but pity the Witch just slightly, had she been able to overcome the resentments boiling and brewing since her childhood, things may have ended differently.
I highly recommend you read this, whether or not you’ve seen the musical (I still haven’t!). It’s a fantastic start to an entirely new take on Oz.
You can pick it up from World of Books for £2.80