by Isabel Greenberg.
Isabel Greenberg’s The Encyclopedia Of Early Earth may initially tell an improbable and heart-rending love story of two lovers destined to never touch, but as it develops it becomes much more; a concise history of the world before this one and a loving celebration of the art of storytelling itself.
The improbable love story that bookends the Encyclopedia is between a Nord man and a South Pole woman, destined to be together yet unable to touch, some strange twist of fate keeping them apart. All they can do is lie side by side and share stories, and in those stories we find other stories, as the storytellers tell tales of storytellers telling tales.
Encyclopedia Of Early Earth doesn’t claim to be the truth (‘Readers! This book is not a real encyclopedia‘ is the first line you read on the back cover), but it has something of the truth about it, this mix of ancient folklore and creation myths, that makes the reader feel these tales could have been real once, ancient tales of a long forgotten world uncovered once more.
Love In A Cold Climate; Greenberg’s 2011 winning entry to the Observer/Cape prize forms the basis of the book’s opening chapter, and creates the structure for all that follows.The Nord man falls in love with a South Pole woman after he’s circumnavigated Early Earth, but even though north poles and south poles should really attract there’s some mysterious force keeping these two apart, something even the Shaman of the South Pole just cannot explain.
Undaunted, and believing that love really could conquer all, they marry, and live together, if somewhat apart. Tiny, unexplained mysteries to do with the laws of physics aside, they live happily ever after, their necessary distance meaning their lives were filled with wonderful romance; switching sides of the bed each morning to experience the impression of the other in their pillow for a fleeting moment, almost but not quite holding each other.
Beautiful. So lovely. An easy definition of true love right there. And as they can’t touch, they tell each other stories…. which is where the rest of the book comes from.
The framing sequence of the lovers held at bay leads us into so many other lands, so many other adventures, so many other stories, many of them very familiar, all of them expertly told, Gods and men, old testament things, folk-tales we remember from childhood, there’s so much here to recognise.
The first tale the Nord Man shares with his untouchable wife is of a baby boy split in three, on the whim of three sisters and the pride and curiosity of a medicine man. The boy grows up wrong, each partial personality not quite right. Realising this, the sisters and the medicine man patch him back together, but a little piece of his soul goes missing in the reformation and this incomplete Nord Man sets off to find it….
“Just a little piece” … you can tell already I hope that Greenberg’s tongue is set firmly in cheek for most of these tales, which is just the right way to do all these storytelling creation things.
As he travels the Early Earth this Nord man tells his stories to all who listen, stories of his land, of his Gods, of the storytellers of his land. What we get are stories within stories within stories as the storyteller’s quest becomes the stories that create worlds, of first loves, first deaths, of terrible sibling rivalries that reverberate through so many religions…. creation stories all do share the same DNA after all.
We go deeper and deeper into the realm of stories, as storytellers tell tales of old crones telling stories that become the stories that are passed down through the generations, and some of these creation tales feel very biblically familiar indeed, old testament, new testament, floods, whales, and all that stuff…..
Above all this history and storytelling we have, as we always do in mythical tales, the Gods of these worlds; the Eagle God BirdMan and his children, The Ravens, Kid and Kiddo. And they are, as all Gods in all myths always seem to be, very prone to acts of whim and jealousy, of competition, of retribution on those down on Earth, Early or not.
And in the end, all you really need to know, the one thing to take from this, the one thing that will probably stand you in fine stead is that the Gods, whoever they are, whenever and wherever they are… the Gods are bastards.
Those little weird bits of physics are nothing of the sort, that’s the only conclusion the Nord man and the South Pole woman would ever come to if they realised all the things we did upon finishing their tale. Circularity and coincidence abound, as does synchronicity, fate, and plain damn bloodymindedness on the part of whatever deity you choose to think of.
The Encyclopedia Of Early Earth is pure folk-telling, almost childishly simple in its ideology, but then again, most creation tales, most simple tales of Gods and Man are always both simple and ridiculous when you drill down into them, it has always been thus, Greenberg just points this out more clearly than many have before. There’s truth in the playfulness of Greenberg’s work, there’s both great style and grand history in her line, something that you’ll see many influences in, and personally I just kept seeing the great Carl Giles himself, something in her faces that reminds me of the great man.
It is a wonderfully involving work; artistic, epic, playful, adventurous, ridiculous, but despite all that it’s suffering from one big flaw… it felt too long. There’s a sense that the circularity and coincidence is overplayed, that somewhere in here in the second half there’s simply too much going on, too many cute little twists, it meanders and gets tiresome and I could have cheerfully seen 50 pages cut from the finished book. It would have made it tighter, and turned something great into something nigh on perfect.
The first half is perfectly paced, and Greenberg’s finale brings everything together perfectly, resolving the story and rewarding the reader, filling our heads and her pages with those familiar tales of floods and whales and giving her Gods their petty revenge that twists and turns human relationships inside out.
With just that bit of tightening up, this would have been a tight and skilful piece of storytelling up with the absolute best of them in 2013. As it is, Greenberg may have to be content with just (yeah, just) producing one of the finest debuts of the year. Now, that’s not that bad surely? It’s a (mostly) enthralling tale of Gods and man, of love and storytellers, and certainly one that marks Isabel Greenberg’s entry into the ranks of top-notch British talent.