Brent Hayward's The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter takes some getting used to, mostly because the book's uncompromising originality leaves the reader with few familiar signposts. Reading it is like waking up in the wrong bed, in the wrong apartment, under the wrong sun. The strangest part is the insidious way the strangeness of Hayward's world becomes familiar as the story progresses. The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter brings the aesthetic of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast together with deities from Sumerian mythology to make a fragmented narrative that baffles, repulses and occasionally entertains.
The book presents what appears to be a four-tiered universe, although the landscape is often difficult to survey. There is Nowy Solum, a decaying city besieged by perpetual cloud cover and ruled by a sex-addicted queen known as "the chatelaine," who keeps a menagerie of mutant animals in her chambers. On the same plane, outside the city's walls, is a desert wasteland from which a limbless seer named "path" arrives. Above the clouds, a tree-dwelling civilization fears the wrath of the sky god Anu. And above that, above everything, a group of ragged astronauts wrestles with a sentient ship. Meanwhile, in a swampy cavern below the city, a grotesque goddess called "the fecund" exudes even more bizarre creatures from the pores of her skin.
Most of the story takes place in Nowy Solum. Here, we learn, humanity is divided into two physiological classes: Outcasts known as "kholics," who bleed melancholy, are marked with tattoos to differentiate them from the red-blooded ruling "hemo" class. The problems in Nowy Solum increase when the chatelaine, a "hemo," takes a young kholic as a lover.
It sounds like a mess because it is a mess, a fascinating mess. The book is divided into fragments, each dealing with a specific part of the story and focusing on one group of characters. The fragments are titled with icons that help bring some order. For example, segments dealing with the chatelaine are headed by the icon of a chalice; sections about the limbless seer are accompanied by a snare drum. Although the illustrations by artist Nimit Malavia are fetching, their use as narrative markers is a cloying device to compensate for the dishevelled plot and jumbled narrative.
But for all its challenges, the book succeeds in creating a truly unique and evocative world. The grime of the city and the stench of its underworld are palpable. A description of Nowy Solum might describe the book itself: "Streets led away crookedly between buildings, like arthritic fingers from the palm of an old man's hand. Behind them, the massive arch of dark stone, ornately carved with icons and gargoyles, loomed. Down each of these streets, crowded and noisy and terrifying, worlds of unknowable options."
By turns surreal, macabre and stunningly violent, The Fecund's Melancholy Daughter is dreamlike in its strangeness and complexity. Like a dream, it is difficult to define and difficult to shake. The imagery lingers like archetypes dredged up from the sleeping mind.
People who like the book will really like it. But describing the plot and characters to the uninitiated will result in some curious looks.
Mark D. Dunn is a musician and poet, and the author of Ghost Music . He lives in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. - not such a weird place, considering.