Charles de Lint is a good writer. He has created an interesting, multi-faceted world and interesting, multi-faceted characters through dozens of novels and short stories set in his fictional city of Newford. His prose is always excellent, getting the job of maintaining narrative tone and telling the story done without drawing unnecessary attention to itself. But somehow, The Onion Girl just doesn't have a whole lot of impact. I am reviewing it now after reading it for the second time, but I wasn't positive I had read it before until 80 pages from the end -- and the first time I read it was less than three years ago.
I can't say for sure, because this is the only novel I have read by de Lint, but I suspect he may simply be stronger at short-story length than when he expands his focus. His short stories (at least the ones in Dreams Underfoot, which is the only short story collection of his that I have read) are beautiful, heartbreaking, and urgent. The characters have resonance at that length -- Jilly particularly, who, as the back of this novel says, is the beating heart of de Lint's diverse cast of characters. But somehow when de Lint looked to write Jilly's story, it felt like he took a step back from her and the rest of the characters I had met and loved in Dreams Underfoot. The tone is just a little distant whenever Jilly, Joe, Sophia, and Wendy take over the narration, and that distance made it hard for me to become truly invested in what was going on.
The only person exempt from this authorial distancing was the character of Raylene who, as far as I know, is one of the few characters invented specifically for this novel. Her bits of narration were everything I missed in the rest of the novel: distinctly her own, and alive in a way none of the other characters managed to be. The story moved when it was in Raylene's hands, while it seemed to simply be meandering in anyone else's.
I wonder if the reason for this is something de Lint talks about briefly in his Author's Note. He apologizes to the reader for including the entire text of his short story "In the House of My Enemy" because "having dealt with this element of backstory once already, I didn't have the heart to recast the events for this book simply to say it in new words. Jilly goes through enough already with what happens to her in this novel." The story fits fairly seamlessly into the novel, and it is the one bit of Jilly's narrative that has Raylene's sense of urgency about it. That makes me wonder if perhaps de Lint simply felt too bad about what he was putting Jilly through to properly render all her pain and heartache once again.
Still, despite that odd sense of abstraction, anyone who has followed de Lint's Newford stories should read The Onion Girl; there's certainly nothing bad about the novel, and if it's a little distant, it still fills in many blanks about the characters we have grown to love.