Raising a Glass to Joan Aiken’s “The Monkey’s Wedding”

The reviewer, James Crossley, works for Island Books in Seattle and contributes to Message in a Bottle.

I intended to read Joan Aiken’s retrospective collection methodically, one story at a sitting, but that’s not what happened. I first picked it up in the middle of the night, hours after being stung by a bee, unable to sleep because my hand was still swollen, painful, and itchy. Too much information, I know, but I wound up finishing the whole thing in one go. It would have been worth suffering a whole swarm of bees — it’s wonderful.

I realize that was an old-fashioned, uselessly anecdotal way to start a review, but it seems apt in this case. Aiken started publishing in 1955 and continued as a working writer until her death in 2004, producing over one hundred novels for children and adults along with copious shorter works that appeared in slicks and pulps of both general and genre interest, even employing pseudonyms on occasion. She was part of a story-telling tradition that predates MFA programs and quiet epiphanies, and she concerned herself with a snappier brand of narrative entertainment. The results prove that careful attention to craft raises it to the level of art.

Her fiction draws on folk and fairy tale traditions but adds a strong dash of irony to freshen the taste, very much like the work of John Collier. In the opening story, a sailor brings home a mermaid in a jar as a gift to his girlfriend, only to find that his exotic treasure is a mere inconvenience: “[Y]ou know I can’t stand things in captivity, I’d never have a canary or a goldfish.” In another, a humble, beloved vicar passes away lamenting his wasted life, followed closely by the appearance of a talking black cat whose favorite activities are chicken killing and the siring of numerous kindles of kittens. This secular metempsychosis rankles at least one persnickety church lady: “It was evident that the reverend Paul’s saintliness had been somewhat blunted by the cathood which had been superimposed upon it.” Every piece in the book presents dozens of sardonic understatements like these, the kind that tempt a reviewer into using all his allotted word count for quotation.

But are the stories weird? They’re assuredly odd. The title refers to a widespread folk expression describing the unusual weather phenomenon of the sunshower, when rain falls through bright sunlight, and it suits their mongrel nature. They’re certainly fantastical — almost every one includes at least one supernatural event, and most are built on the impossible. And while they’re almost invariably humorous, they definitely can be unsettling. Some figures are rewarded and others meet slightly shocking ends, but there’s little sense of moral judgment to the process, as the narratives unfurl in a universe which may or may not be governed by reason. There’s no out-and-out horror in the volume, and in fact, there’s plenty of romance.

Perhaps the finest stories here are those that feature young couples in conflict/love with each other, including “Red-Hot Favorite” and “Octopi in the Sky.” They’re exceedingly witty and imaginative, and so lively I couldn’t believe how economical they are. It’s Aiken’s remarkable facility for dialogue that allows her to draw rounded characters with minimal strokes of her brush. William Powell and Myrna Loy needed only ninety minutes to sparkle in The Thin Man, and the good-natured, prevaricating, meet-cute stars of “Spur of the Moment” require just twelve pages to showcase their equally impressive bantering skills.

The sprightliness and the magical elements these stories share make them quite literally charming. Maybe it was the Benadryl talking, but I decided the only proper way to express my appreciation was to open a pub and name it after “The Paper Queen.” Not sure how that’s going to work out, but I may give it a try. If I do, drinks are on the house for anyone raising a glass to toast The Monkey’s Wedding.

James Crossley is a bookseller with ample experience on both sides of the internet and brick-and-mortar retail divide. He currently works at Island Books just outside of Seattle, where he writes frequently for its Message in a Bottle blog. He is also a regular contributor to Dalkey Archive Press’s Review of Contemporary Fiction.