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PRACTICAL MAGIC

Alice Hoffman

Putnam's 256 $22.95

by Kerry Fried

From a safe, adult distance, fables and folk tales are easily falsified -- the morals, magic, and happy endings taking far longer to fade than those images of the night-mind: mistreated children and animals, the impossible quests, the pervasive violence. "The darkness quakes with blood," as Randall Jarrell recalls Grimms' Tales. But in most recollections the woods are less dark and dangerous, the castles clean, almost cake-like. The rapacious wolf has been superseded by an anxious creature haunted by rifle sights, the cruel, envious stepmother replaced by someone surprisingly human.

For most, fairy tales are among the childish things they've put away. According to Alison Lurie, however, such texts are actually realistic. The world is full of stupid, hostile ogres with inordinate power as well as of cruel people who, at best, abandon their children. There are, clearly, dangerous castles (apartment buildings) and duplicitous palaces (now we call them offices). "As we had suspected," Lurie writes in "Folktale Liberation, "the fairy tales had been right all along.... To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck; and it didn't hurt to be very good-looking." Such stories should still be heeded.

But fiction for grown-ups with elements of the uncanny is either made legitimate by the label "magic realism" or viewed with unease. Blurbs featuring adjectives such as "fey" or "quirky" or "haunting" or "myth-like" and phrases like "a modern fable" -- are they welcomes or warnings?

In Alice Hoffman's case, they are definitely the former. Since her first novel appeared in 1977, she has earned a wide, loyal following. Her highly literary works are reprinted not, as one might expect, in tony trade paperbacks but in squat, mass-market editions. And, even more unusually, her ten backlist novels were all available at my local, independent book shop.

Hoffman writes fiction that makes one recall the thrill of hearing, at bedtime, "And now will I a tale unfold..." Her characters include women running from the past, waitresses lonely in trailer parks, families deserted by fathers or separated by bitterness and knowledge, people desiring as little as safe, dreamless sleep. There are also archetypal figures: a scorned giant who paints miniatures; a girl prey to sleeping spells; a boy who teaches himself to disappear; a man raised by a wolf. But these characters are not far-fetched monoliths. The giant subsists by raising chickens and vegetables and only ventures out when it's dark to avoid being tormented. In Second Nature Stephen, having been caught in a trap, is desperate to return to his wolf brothers and yet remains in human society, with all its secrets, pretense, and complexity, because he has fallen in love. The novel's epigraph, the only one Hoffman, not prone to allusion, has used, is from Rousseau and almost serves as a central, resolving vision for her explorations of how best to live: "Nature never deceives us; it is always we who deceive ourselves."

In Alice Hoffman's fiction there is a fascination with wildness, with those who have magical powers or who are in some respect different. These characters can shift civilization but, equally, are threatened by it. Desire and difficult decisions unleash primal forces, particularly floods. Realization comes in flashes of light. And people occasionally set each other free by making the good, unsanctioned choice. At the same time, the author treats the everyday with great reverence, infusing it with mystery. In White Horses the family dog circles the front yard: "patches of the collie's fur drifted over the lawn and took root like strange flowers." And in Seventh Heaven, a 1950s housing estate initially seems a magical place of safety: "No one locked windows. No one locked doors. The G.E. refrigerators hummed and the stars were a brilliant white. . . . A summer night lasted longer here than it did in other places. The chirp of the crickets was slower, and when children fell out of their beds they never woke, but instead rolled gently under their beds, still clutching onto their teddy bears."

At the same time, she takes care to point up the difference between the stories her characters use to console and deceive themselves and the real dangers that they face. In At Risk an astronomer whose little girl is dying of AIDS surprises himself at one point by reverting to "stories of mythical heroes plucked from death and set into the sky. In every story there is a reward for bravery, for courage; in each, flesh and blood is transformed into blinding white light."

Hoffmann's new novel, Practical Magic, seems a pulling back from the conditional explorations and complex surrenders of such works as Illumination Night, At Risk, and Second Nature. It is straightforward in structure, its language curiously curtailed (there are even fewer adverbs than usual) and dialogue less dense, a simplicity befitting what starts out as the tale of two orphaned sisters whose aunts are witches -- of a mild sort. Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town for two hundred years, ever since their ancestor arrived, rich, independent, and soon accused of theft: "And then one day, a farmer winged a crow in his cornfield, a creature who'd been stealing from him shamelessly for months. When Maria Owens appeared the very next morning with her arm in a sling and her white hand wound up in a white bandage, people felt certain they knew the reason why."

The aunts are ostracized daily by the same townspeople who sneak to their house at night for magical love cures. To the sisters they are for the most part benevolently absent, though their role makes life a torment for Gillian, beautiful and blonde and lazy, and Sally, the too responsible one who has hair "as black as the pelts of the ill-mannered cats the aunts allowed to skulk through the garden and claw at the draperies in the parlor."

One of the aunts' cures works too well, ending as a curse -- the client's husband becomes so enamored that he refuses to leave her alone. The dangers of real love are all too clear, and in Hoffman's world the wife's state is not a metaphor: "Nothing came out of her mouth. Not a shout or a scream and certainly not an apology. She put her hand to her throat, as though someone was strangling her, but really she was choking on all that love she thought she'd needed so badly." Sally, the sensible sister, appalled by this woman's condition, resolves to avoid involvement and retreats into the aunts' house, "the green-tinted windowglass was so old and so thick that everything on the other side seemed like a dream, including the sky and the trees." The raffish sister, Gillian, on the other hand, elopes at eighteen, heading for sun and self-indulgence.

Sally, despite her vow, falls in love, but her husband is fated to die; even the aunts can't rid the house of "the deathwatch beetle." After a year of silence and grayness, she escapes, determined to raise her two girls in a town where all the houses are the same -- unenchanted. But the past catches up. Her daughters are sixteen and thirteen when Gillian, thrice-divorced and still leading a rackety life, appears on the doorstep . Unfortunately, Gillian has brought along her latest boyfriend. Even more unfortunately, Jimmy is "tall, dark, handsome and dead," this last having occurred quite recently.

The sisters bury him in Sally's garden, succeeding only in making the lilacs run mad, a mistake that haunts the family, in particular Sally's daughter Kylie, who has the power of vision. "She sees that those lilacs, those beautiful things, have an aura all their own, and it's surprisingly dark. It's purple, but it seems like a blood-stained relic, and it drifts upward like smoke....He's there all right, admiring the night through his gorgeous cold eyes, ready to make somebody pay." We believe that Jimmy is hanging around to ruin everything, just as we believe another simple metaphor -- heat. Love is a physical sensation. The elbows of a man bewitched pucker a linoleum counter. Another walks around with singed cuffs.

It's difficult to catch Alice Hoffman's power in brief quotes. She needs space and increment to build her variations of vision and reality, her matter-of-fact announcements of the preternatural: "She turned and ran all the way home, across the fields in the moonlight, fast as a deer, faster even, entering into people's dreams so that by the next morning people in town awoke out of breath, with their legs shaking from exertion..." In Practical Magic there seems less space for consciousness. The Owens women exist on a simple plane -- awareness is not the same as consciousness -- and some may find this stripping down unsatisfactory rather than audacious, more fairy tale-like than grown-up. Those who do might take a moment to recall Alison Lurie's caveat.

Originally published in the April/May 1995 issue of Boston Review



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