The Turnaway Girls
As a child, I devoured fairy tales. The worlds were magical, but they also showed me the reality that there was both good and bad, lightness and darkness in the world. Fairy tales did not sugar coat the violence nor the importance of our choices. The older I got, the more I continued to read books that reminded me of those first fairy tales I loved. Fantastic and magical worlds created by E. Nesbitt, George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Diana Wynne Jones, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Later on, I would add Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Catherynne M. Valente, and Katherine Arden. I have never lost the wonder of reading works by writers who create mythical and magical worlds that had not existed before they put pen to page. When, as a boy, I learned that people actually wrote these books, I thought no less of them than proper wizards, mages, or magicians. What they did was no less miraculous than what happened on the pages of their books.
I love to be transported to somewhere new, somewhere unimagined until that author discovered it in their own imaginations and brought those worlds into the words of stories. There is something childlike about allowing oneself to be given over to an author's creation that I have never, ever lost.
"Mother Nine says it's the wall that does it - fills the shimmer room with music and gold. But I know it's someone on the other side. I know it's a boy. A boy who was born and wrapped in scrolls of music instead of blankets. A boy with bells crowning his head, the sea a chorus of thrush spray behind him, lifting a stone-flute to his lip. Breathing songs into living."
So begins The Turnaway Girls and, like that boy with his songs, Hayley Chewins breathes this story into life. The protagonist, 12-year-old Delphernia Undersea is a "turnaway girl." What, you may ask, is a turnaway girl? A passage that takes place between Delphernia and Mother Nine, the head of the cloister where young girls take the music that is played by the Masters outside their walls and make that music into gold or "shimmer" as Mother Nine refers to it, best explains it:
Mother nine breathes ragged breaths, walking a circle about me. "Do you know, Delphernia, why I never look you in the eye?"
I stare at the ground, "You don't look at a thing invisible," I say, "You don't look at a thing that is not to be seen."
"And what of you?" She slaps the twig-switch against her palm.
My skin is sack, and I'm wriggling around inside it. "Turnaway girls are not seen - they see. Turnaway girls are not heard - they hear."
It's a true marvel for books to surprise me, to make give myself over to it so completely to the story's lyrical, almost musical style. Like the music that is turned to gold, Hayley Chewins' writing shimmers because she uses language in a way that is poetic, deep, rich, complex and vivid. I read with wonder and admiration. Delphernia may be only a turnaway girl to Mother Nine, but that's not how she views herself. Like Jane Eyre, the heroine of this novel is sees her own identity as more than her lowly situation.
In a passage that is exquisite in beauty and description, the reader begins to see Delphernia's strong inner self:
The cloisterwings sigh among half-dead leaves, waiting for me to sing to them. I loosen a dangling strip of the hollow tree's bark and press it to my tongue. It tastes of the rain that pours through the skydoor once every week when Mother Nine opens it to receive our food from the Custodian and our water from the clouds, when the cloisterwings are locked in bent-gold cages so that they cannot escape. It tastes of how it must feel to see the whole sky in one go. It tastes of having wings.
I grab one of the drooping branches and hoist myself into the hollow tree's belly, sliding down, down, down. My finger bones prickle as I settle into the joy of the dark. In the dark, I am hidden. In the dark, I can sing. In the dark, I am as much cloisterwing as girl.
It is in such a moment that Delphernia realizes she can make light-strands as the othergirls do in the shimmer-room, but she does so not with the singing of the Masters but with her own singing. This gloriously transcendent moment brings about her realization: I made this.
In creation begins identity.
Unlike the other girls, she can create not "a dead clump of gold" but she has "sung a bird with a beating heart." From the depths of her inner life, she creates life.
Creativity is a kind of magic. An author pulls from their inner selves (their imagination, their subconscious, their memories, what they have noticed, other stories they have read) and they put pen to paper or fingers to laptop keys and they start from a blank page or screen and fill them with words that draw the reader in the way stories always have since our ancestors began telling them in caves or around a fire. Stories move beyond facts to truths that can only be expressed in a story, in metaphor, in images. And, as they begin to do this, they toil and doubt themselves and question the validity of what they are doing and, at times, surprise themselves by what they just brought to the page. Something a character says or does. A twist in the tale that is unexpected to even them.
Neil Gaiman wrote in A Game of You, "Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody - no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them, they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds . . . Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe."
What is it that sparks something in someone to move past their fears and dare to write about those worlds? What book or author caused a young reader to suddenly imagine, "I want to do this"? For Neil Gaiman, it was reading C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. For Hayley Chewins it was reading David Almond's amazing novel Skellig. But what moves one from imagining they are a writer to actually sitting down and writing? Of making themselves day after day when no one else will read these words, write them?
As Hayley Chewins' wrote about on her blog:
. . . I run on hope.
Hope is the petrol I put in my tank. It's what kindles my creative fire. Hope is the thing that keeps me going. (Okay, and coffee). Bottom line is: If I'm not hoping, I'm not working.
What do I mean by hoping?
I mean that when I'm writing a book, I believe all the good things it is possible to believe about a book.
I believe my agent will love it. I believe it will sell. I believe it will find an audience. I believe people will adore it as much as I do.
It's not easy. In fact, it's pretty hard to maintain a sense of hope in what sometimes feels like a never-ending maelstrom of Horrible Things.
But I do it anyway.
Because it's the only thing I can do.
And I agree with her. Hope is the only thing that can drive someone to create when so much around them would dissuade and discourage them from doing so. From those voices in one's head that tell one that they are a fake, that they are not any good at creating because creating is for other, more creative people.
Hope is also what drives The Turnaway Girls. The hope of Delphernia to be more than she is told that she is. Her story is inventive, thrilling and utterly captivating.
Haley Chewins' official website & blog: