The Elixir of Denial by E. Christopher Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I sort-of know E. Christopher Clark. He is a writing streamer on Twitch, and so am I, and we’re connected in the same community. That is part of why I bought this book. The other reason is the first line: Ashley had spent a year trying to f*ck the memory of Robin Gates out of her system, but it hadn’t worked. I figured that any book that wasn’t afraid to be this brave in the first line was going to be worth it. And I was not disappointed.
The Elixir of Denial is the fourth book in a series, The Stains of Time, that I have not read any of the rest of. I’m going to now. Clark assured me that you did not need the rest of the series to enjoy this one, that it was capable of standing alone, and he was not wrong; but he also suggested there might be context that I wouldn’t get without the rest of the series, and he was not wrong about that either, and now I gotta know.
This is a book that’s hard to classify. It’s fantasy, because there’s time travel, and Clark approaches that with a sort of “magical realism” angle that makes it all feel very natural, the way that Virginia Woolf’s classic Orlando makes Orlando’s gender shift feel very natural. It’s literary in its style, and in how the magical elements are merely drivers for the characters and their actions, but are not the plot in and of themselves. It’s absurdist, because it pokes fun at people in a satirical way that teases us all about how we are — but it’s not satire. The overall effect was a bit like if Margaret Atwood and Terry Pratchett had decided to get together and co-write a book about a family that time travels from time to time, and what effect that might have on their otherwise-ordinary lives.
And no, I did not invoke those names lightly. The language is direct but beautiful. Dancing, liquid prose runs through the story like a laughing brook, carrying you along like a child’s boat-model, until before you know it, you have reached the end. I laughed (a lot,) I cried (in just the right dose,) and I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful and radiant journey that celebrates humanity, in spite of our flaws; or maybe, because of our flaws.
I absolutely adore Ashley Silver, Clark’s fearless protagonist! When my husband was in a major, life-threatening car accident, I re-evaluated my life, and I decided that life was too short not to fully live. I was going to make my allotted time count by seeking out experiences, and that I was not going to let fear stop me from doing the things I wanted to do. If you want to know what that feels like (when you don’t have to fight brain weasels, as I do and as most of us do,) then spend some time with Ashley Silver.
Ashley is a woman who is unabashedly powerful, and for her, much of that power comes in her sexuality. She could use it to manipulate and hurt — but she does not. She uses it to bring joy; to herself and to others. If that idea offends you, this is not a book for you. She does not apologize for who and what she is. She embraces a joie de vivre that is truly inspiring, and deliciously optimistic. She can also laugh at herself, and frequently, and I can’t help but love that, too.
She’s not without her flaws either, of course. The title gives us a clue. Is choosing to live, instead of dwelling on tragedy, denial? It can be, and for Ashley, it is in places from time to time. Ashley is also somewhat oblivious to the fact that her unapologetic life sometimes accidentally blows other people over by its sheer power and momentum. Yet, she cannot be anything other than what she is, so she demands the world accept that. She is also capable of acts of awe-inspiring generosity and compassion. She is a Queen of Wands in all senses of the word. Being her friend must be gloriously fun, and occasionally exhausting and frustrating.
The plot: Ashley lost the love of her life in a brutal murder. She uses the power of time travel to seek her out and see her again. Except time travel isn’t an exact science in the book, so the journey to find her, and where (and when) that takes our heroine is, in itself, the story. And what it teaches her — and us — is that while the past needs to be processed and accepted, dwelling on it, or trying to recapture it, serves no purpose. It teaches us that life is to be lived in the moment.
If you enjoy Terry Pratchett, Connie Willis, Neil Gaiman‘s magical realism, or the later works of Stephen King (from about The Green Mile on) this is not to be missed. I feel that Clark deserves a lot more attention than he’s getting. Go find out why.
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The Elixir of Denial by E. Christopher Clark