Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Conversation: The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox

cover art for The Vintner's Luck, featuring a white marble statue of a crouching angel. The statue is half in shadow with tones of burgundy in the background.
So many wonderful things begin on Twitter.

A few weeks back, I tweeted some brief, complimentary thoughts on THE VINTNER'S LUCK, Elizabeth Knox's novel of interspecies love in nineteenth century France. My good friend Lynn O'Connacht, who introduced me to it in the first place, responded, and the next thing either of us knew we'd decided to reread it together.

It was pretty durned awesome, y'all.

If you're unfamiliar with the book and require some summary: Disconsolate in the wake of his first major heartache, Sobran Jodeau takes himself to the far corners of his family's vineyard to mope--and instead meets an angel with whom he hashes out his problems. Xas is reluctant to offer outright advice, but his interest in Sobran's situation is strong enough that he agrees to meet the young vintner again next year to see how everything's turned out. The meetings quickly become a yearly thing--and, in time, morph into a different sort of relationship altogether.

That's enough to get by on, I suppose, but I'll warn you: this isn't a proper review. It's a conversation between two people who have many, many thoughts on the book and not shy about spoilers. I invite those of you in search of something a little more review-like and a hell of a lot more spoiler-free to peruse my totally inadequate (but nonetheless enthusiastic) 2009 review.

Okay? Okay.

Now, a brief word on Lynn before we start. She was one of the first people I met when I began blogging, and she's introduced me to heaps of great books over the years. She made me write an intro for myself over on her half of our conversation, so I insisted she do the same for me, like so:

Hi, everyone! I'm Lynn, an indie author, a reader, a gamer, and an occasional watcher of dvds. I met Memory in 2008 or so and she's been one of my blogging inspirations ever since as well as an awesome writer with great taste. It's been wonderful to read The Vintner's Luck together with Memory. It's a book we both fell in love with the first time we read it and it seemed like a great book to try this buddy reviewing thing out with.

And let's get going! Remember, this post is rife with spoilers, which begin right after the break. It's also the second half of a larger conversation, so I strongly urge you to read the first half over at Lynn's blog before you pop back here to see us gush about the dramatic conclusion.

Let the spoilers begin... NOW!

Memory:Now, speaking of amputations: Lucifer. I have various half-formed thoughts on the guy, but I think most of them relate to THE ANGEL’S CUT rather than THE VINTNER’S LUCK.

Lynn: I think it was God who injured Xas enough to require him to amputate his wings and not Lucifer? Which... is not the way you'd expect it if you go with the god = good, devil = evil dichotomy that's usually taught.

Memory: You know, I hadn't even thought about God being the one to injure Xas so badly, though maybe that's just me being dense. Obviously it had to be an angel or someone similar. I did think a lot about God owning his pain during those scenes. To my mind, Lucifer cuts off Xas's wings in part because God will share the pain of that loss.

Lynn: It could just be me looking for connections that weren’t there. Michael hurt Xas too and I don’t think God was too happy about that. But it’s just that Xas did get that (implied) warning from God and ignored it and I don’t think we ever learn – No, actually, I think I’m being dense and we do actually learn what injured Xas and I just completely forgot in favour of my interpretation. (Rewriting books in action! Go, my brain. >> *prods it*)

What makes you think Lucifer does it so God will share the loss? I don’t read the scene that way, so I’m curious.

Memory: Mostly the contract between God and Lucifer. Lucifer gets all Xas’s pleasure, which is why Xas doesn’t want to sleep with Sobran at first, while God gets all his pain, which is why he tries not to get hurt too often. I’m not sure Lucifer could inflict so much pain on Xas without thinking of how God would share in it. There’s the immediate pain of the amputation (the severity of which is debatable, given the state Xas is in), plus the lingering pain of being a winged creature who’s forced to forgo flight.

Lynn: Aaaaaaah… I didn’t think it was so much that Xas didn’t want to sleep with Sobran as that he thought Sobran would have trouble with the idea of giving Lucifer pleasure? That’s how Xas’ explanation read to me. And you’re right, I think. Lucifer would be thinking of how God would share in Xas’ pain there.

To me it’s still quite on that first layer, so it’s mostly the what you see is what you get stage of interpretation which is pretty much ‘amputate or let the world slowly be sucked dry of its lifeforce because angels can’t die’. Which is also where I think it might be blasphemous to people if that’s right because if that’s right then that means Lucifer just saved the world.

Memory: That makes me think of NOT WANTED ON THE VOYAGE by Timothy Findley, where Lucifer et al are far more admirable than God’s crowd. But that’s a discussion for a different time, seeing as how it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with this book...

Lynn: Not to mention I haven’t heard of it before now, so I’d just stare blankly and politely at you. Well, at the screen, but you know what I mean. ^-~

Anyway! Things that I wound up pondering that we haven't mentioned yet include how visceral parts of the story are with both mutilations (and now I'm trying to think if there are echoes there) and the way we see Xas and Aurora react to their new selves.

Memory: Visceral is totally the word for it, particularly with the wings. There’s the halfway manic, halfway clinical way the amputation occurs, plus the depth of the loss afterwards. It's one of those things I almost don't want to analyze. I'd rather just sink into the feeling. Lynn: I... admit that I really don’t want to poke this either. Though for me it’s more that I want to get as far away from the feeling as I can; it’s that powerful. That scene is also the one I remember best. It left such a deep impression. But yes I think the depth of loss was beautifully captured. It makes a strong counterpoint to Aurora’s loss too and, come to think of it, Sobran’s.

Memory: They all end up losing such vital parts of themselves, but they still trundle on.

Lynn: Which is kind of what we all do in our own way eventually, isn’t it? We lose pieces of ourselves and yet we carry on as best we may.

Memory: FEELS.

I also wonder if, perhaps, the wings could be restored at some point. (I’m kind of hung up on the wings because I’ve always wanted to be able to fly. I don’t care what anyone says: flight is not a useless superpower. It’s awesome incarnate.) They don't decay, and their role in the wine production makes me think they might continue to produce blood (or whatever the angelic equivalent of blood is). (Which, now that I think of it, makes the Jodeau wine the blood of Christ, since Xas and Jesus are the same...) I'm gonna try not to get my hopes up on that point, but it'll be a struggle.

Lynn: Well… Xas did grow down back and I think that it’s possible to reattach, say, a severed digit if we get to it fast enough and the digit is kept on ice until then? So It isn’t impossible for his wings to grow back if we look at the whole "angels don’t die and their severed bits don’t die either" suggestion in the book. It’d just take meeting a doctor that knows what to do, though that makes you wonder why no one restored them until now. If we have the knowledge, surely so do heaven and hell...

Memory: Xas would have to get another angel to reattach them because of the whole only-angels-can-harm-angels thing. (Even though it’s not exactly harm, I think Xas’s body would still read the cuts and stitches as something negative.) My thoughts on that stray into THE ANGEL’S CUT, too...

Lynn: Quite possibly, but if Hell is curious about the copies of human texts because they learn from them, it’s possible that Lucifer needs humans to advance to the point where we know enough about this to write it down for him to learn? Or something? I WILL CLING TO MY SLIVER OF HOPE UNTIL KNOX SNATCHES IT AWAY FROM ME.

Memory: *clings along with you*

Lynn: There’s also the widow that Xas also spends time with and who sends Sobran a letter. Both the way that allows another angle on the religious aspect of the book, but also the way it opens up the world a little.

Memory: The thing that strikes me about the widow is that Sobran doesn't even seem to consider what she suggests to him in her letter. He just goes along as per usual.

Lynn: Yes, very true. We get this glimpse into the wider world and… nothing happens. It’s just a window.

There’s the war, too, and the gradual way in which Knox revealed why Sobran followed Baptiste into it as well as that scene with the Russian whore.

Memory: I wonder about Sobran's relationship with the original Baptiste and whether it began as entirely consensual. I got the impression Baptiste was a little older and very much the instigator, though of course there's nothing to say that Sobran didn't give enthusiastic consent. It's simply that our culture packs a lot of baggage where relationships between older and younger people are concerned. It certainly does seem that Baptiste had genuine feelings for Sobran, given that he made Sobran his heir.

Lynn: There is an element of force to it, yes, but I wonder how much of that is inference. A lot of what we hear about their relationship is hearsay and inference. Baptiste makes Sobran his heir, and Sobran goes to war to be with Baptiste and is determined to bring him home safe. But that’s it. Beyond that it’s all sketchy. Our culture does pack a lot of baggage into those relationships, yes, and I did think they had genuine feelings for each other. I mean, Baptiste makes Sobran his heir and Sobran names his first-born son after Baptiste.

That father-son relationship wasn't more antagonistic than I remembered. Especially once 'Cayley' shows up. (Confession: I have a ridiculously hard time remembering Cayley = Xas and not a new character altogether. Sadly half the reason has nothing to do with the book, but the other half is that this is the first time we see Xas interact with people not-Sobran and do more than listen and talk. I want to be taught by a Xas-Cayley... T_T)

Memory: I'd largely forgotten about Baptiste Jodeau. I'm sure there's lots to unpack there, particularly with how he tries to kiss Xas when he thinks Xas is his half brother, but I'm not sure I have the mental energy for it. Brain fuzz looms.

Lynn: Oh! Yes! And I’m afraid my mental energy for it is the same. I think this is one of those layers I talked about where everything with Baptiste Jodeau is something you only really start to pick up on a reread. Maybe the first reread, but perhaps also a couple of rereads into it because you’ve teased out enough of the rest to focus on him and his bit of plot. So maybe it isn’t just brain fuzz. Maybe it’s a layer we didn’t get to yet. (Pop guestimate quiz: how many times can Lynn use the word ‘layer’ or any other variant of it in this buddy review?)

Memory: So many layers! It’s like an onion. Or a parfait.

Lynn: Or very very big lasagna? *generally banned from cooking for everyone’s safety*

Memory: now I’m hungry.

Lynn: I’d apologise, but so am I. Mmmmm parfait...

Memory: And yes! Jumping back a bit, I love the idea of Xas-as-teacher, especially since he seems to greet the role with enthusiasm. I think that's the thing I like most about Xas. He's interested and enthusiastic, but he rarely reacts to things the way a human would. He's both deeply connected and largely disconnected, all at once. I have a few more thoughts in that area, but they all tie into TAC so I shall save them for that book.

Lynn: Yes... And he also really likes learning for the sake of learning. Doesn’t that also tie in with how he came to be in the situation he’s in? So I think Xas-as-teacher actually gives him an opportunity to learn even more through his teaching. We’ve heard throughout that whenever he’s sought out people to talk to, they’ve been hermits. So he wouldn’t have run into many children, would he? That’d be an entirely new experience for him, so perhaps that’s also part of his enthusiasm.

Memory: Excellent point. Sobran’s pretty young when they meet, but he’s definitely not a child. And the monk and the widow Xas interacts with both seem quite a bit older, as do all the people he meets on the road right after he loses his wings. I hadn’t even thought of what it must be like for him to suddenly have children to watch and teach and interact with.

Lynn: I think it’s also pretty clear that Xas, at least initially, is only half-interested in teaching him. Sobran just takes what Xas says and runs with it because, well, angel so therefore he must know better than Sobran. But Xas explicitly tells me that he’s not giving Sobran advice when Sobran kind of… berates, I suppose fits, for ‘suggesting’ he marry Celeste and his marriage doesn’t turn out to be quite what he’d hoped for and everyone who actually knows him and Celeste recommended against it.

I wonder... When you talk about Xas’ reactions, how he’s both deeply connected and disconnected, whether, in retrospect, this is the first time we really see that aspect? But perhaps in a slightly different light since it’s easy to fall into the same situation Sobran is in and assume that, because Xas is an angel, he automatically knows best even when we know, full-well, that he’s only got very little information, all of it very biased, to build a picture of the situation. There’s a disconnect already built into that because of that lack of information and it’s amplified by the disconnect Sobran (and by extension the reader) gets because of his (our?) view of what Xas is and is not capable of. It’s like Sobran assuming that Xas isn’t a fallen angel until Xas explicitly tells him so.

Memory: it strikes me that the characters make a lot of assumptions. They’re constantly forced to reevaluate the way they see the world.

Lynn: Which, come to think of it, is what leads to Sobran’s colourblindness which disconnects him from the world that he used to know since he views it differently.

I know you had some thoughts on that and I’m now wondering if the return of his coloured vision is thematically tied to him, ah, loosening up a little again. He remains sober, but I do think Xas’ revelation leaves him seeing the world in a very stark contrast for quite a long time and it’s not until he really gets to know Aurora that he changes again, is it?

Memory: yep. His worldview literally shifts. I love how Knox doesn’t make a big deal of how he regains his ability to see colour, too. All of a sudden, he sees yellow again—which I gather is an important colour for him, what with white wine being yellow-tinged—and life proceeds from there. This strikes me as terribly elegant.

Lynn: I thought it was red that I noticed first, but I’m not entirely sure. That’s also an important colour for him, of course, and, like white wine and it’s yellow-tinge has additional meanings as well. I’m not sure they’d be entirely the same for Sobran as for the reader, but our perception of colour-meanings do follow us into the text.

And... I think that’s us entirely rambled out for the time being? Was there anything else you wanted to add?

Memory: I think we are, indeed, rambled out. Thanks for an awesome discussion!

Lynn: Thank you too! I hope people have had as much fun reading our discussion as we had in holding it! Links

Hopefully we've made you want to read THE VINTNER'S LUCK! While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read THE VINTNER'S LUCK, you can try:

I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through Kobo, The Book Depository, or Amazon. I get an extra month of Scribd if you sign up for a two-month free trial.

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