The first of the YA novels I’m going to be blogging about is My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgwick. Marcus has been a contributor to the OGOM project from its beginnings in 2010 and even wrote an original story for us on Stoker for our Centenary celebrations in 2012. His research notes for the novel are published in the Open Graves, Open Minds book (‘The Elusive Vampire: Folklore, Fiction and Writing My Swordhand is Singing’, Open Graves, Open Minds, pp. 264-276)
I didn’t know anything about Marcus back then but when I picked up a copy of the novel in St Albans I knew I had found the text that would complete my reading list for ‘Reading the Vampire’. What struck me on first encountering it was the fact that the word ‘vampire’ never once appears in the book. It is a moving and original novel set in the wintry forests of Romania in the seventeenth century. It tells the story of a woodcutter, Thomas, and his son, Peter, who begin by arousing suspicion as outsiders and end up saving the village of Chust, their temporary home, from a plague of vampires. Sedgwick’s novel marks a departure from the alluring teen vampires of late, returning the creature to its folklorist roots in Eastern Europe and recasting it as ‘hostage’ or ‘revenant’, capturing the flavour of early reports of vampirism (such as Calmet or Tournefort). The novel is scrupulously researched and imaginatively written, dealing sensitively with ‘otherness’, ethnicity, and death.
The secret to the novel’s main theme lies in the strains of the gypsy melody, The Miorita, which allows those who understand it to go to their deaths singing, returning the ‘hostages’ to the ground forever. Sedgwick ingeniously combines the myths of the forest—the ‘Shadow Queen’ and the ‘Winter King’—with real life ceremonies still practised in parts of rural Romania. This includes the gruesome custom of marrying a young girl to a corpse in the ‘Wedding of the Dead’, one of the most striking scenes of the book. This is undertaken to prevent young men who die prematurely going to their graves unmarried. The powerful strain of the gypsy music is evocative of the novel’s themes and like the work itself remains in the mind for a long time after the music ceases.
I argued earlier that there are some subjects too large for adult fiction that can only be dealt with adequately in YA fiction and Sedgwick’s novel certainly exemplifies this. He is writing about prejudice, rootlessness and the heart breaking loss of a parent, through the theme of vampirism (drawing playfully on the plot conventions of Joseph Campbell’s twelve steps in the hero’s journey). The writing is delightful, terrifying and strangely moving, whilst showing that there are as many kinds of vampires as there are villages in Transylvania. I’m going to be offering my suggested approaches to this text in the next post and positing some of our study questions on it. Congratulations to Marcus for She is Not Invisible which was voted into the top ten YA novels of 2013 by The Observer and is currently awaiting my attention at the foot of my bed…
Marcus is continuing to win prizes and inspire debate. His novel Midwinterblood, won the 2014 Michael L. Printz Award. One of the themes of his new book is coincidence and fortune, which seems very apt for this post. We were in some ways brought together through fortune, which as the novel suggests is ‘blind’ but ‘not invisible’ (Bacon).