11 May 2023

Review: The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager book cover

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager is quite unlike any book I've read before. The story of Hansel and Gretel is told at 75 year intervals between the years 1378 - 2365 to coincide with the visit of Halley's Comet. I had no idea how the author was going to achieve 14 different narratives, the juxtaposition of historical fiction and science fiction, and all in a non linear fashion without losing the reader's focus or attention. It sounded too ambitious but I was game.

At the time I chose to pick this up, I was reading The Brothers Grimm: 101 Fairy Tales by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm and struggling to push through the style of writing. It was for this reason that the inclusion of the Grimm brothers in the 1835 timeline of The Archive of Alternate Endings was a welcome surprise.
"The task set before them is to solicit from the women the tales that have defined their country and culture, the tales that are going extinct. The women know the stories best, for they are the primary narrators. These are women for whom work means labor: tending garden, cooking dinner, raising children, cleaning house. Telling tales, the women inform Jacob and Wilhelm, helps to pass the time." Page 12
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm listen to the story of Hansel and Gretel, and one particular version is different to the one we all know. From this point, we follow the various iterations of the fairytale in the subsequent narratives.
"Hansel and Gretel. The story is first told by tongues now long gone. It echoes through the countryside, travels great distances and across the ages. Families install it into the brains of their children and those children grow to become adults. The story is mapped into the mind like a digital blueprint. The brain computes that the story is about strife, abandonment, the possibilities of leaving bits of yourself behind in order to find your way home. Home is used here figuratively, meaning that which is familiar and comfortable and safe." Page 67
In the 1910 timeline, the narrator is an illustrator of the story providing a neat connection, and here she reflects on the difference between being a writer and reading:
"She is grateful she is not a writer, for writing is a ghostly, haunted thing. It permits one to enter different temporal dimensions. It allows one to enter different human psyches. It requires one to manipulate the feelings of another until one elicits a particular response. To read is to consume, to put the book on the tongue and push it down the throat. She reads the story again and again, silently. She catches herself in the glass of the window and for a moment, she does not know the lips that mouth the words." Page 50
You might be wondering how the reader could possibly navigate and keep track of 14 time lines, and I marvelled at this while reading too. The feat is achieved with ingenious chapter headings and sub-headings, aided by short punchy chapters and vignettes and held together with solid storytelling to connect the timelines and keep the story straight.
"It is easy to forget, but stories need not always have a purpose. We are quick to say that folktales have a moral or a lesson or a creed. But most of the stories that have survived the ages are told for one purpose only, and that purpose is to say this: 'Being human is difficult. Here is some evidence.' " Page 94-95
I think the same can be said when considering the purpose behind The Archive of Alternate Endings. There are morals and lessons along the way and the book is full of cosmic correlations and themes of sibling connections, parenthood, queerness, grief, climate change, AIDs epidemic and the power of stories coalesce into a literary offering quite unlike my usual reading fare.

Somehow the author has pulled off quite a feat bringing more than 14 dates and narratives together and the following quote seems a fitting description of the reader's experience on the page:
"Time feels like it is pleating, so that before and after seem somehow simultaneously now." Page 84
This characterises my own reading experience and I was impressed by the author's ability to pleat time and not lose me in the folds of her many intersecting and overlapping narratives in the process. The only reason this book isn't getting the full 5 star treatment, is that several future dated chapters didn't hit the mark for me.

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager was published in 2019, and a quick check tells me the author hasn't released any novels since then but I bet she's penning another stellar literary experiment and I'm totally here for it.

My Rating:

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