Rust Belt American Magic Realism: Wonders of the Invisible World by Christopher Barzak

Wonders of the Invisible World, Christopher Barzak’s third novel following One for Sorrow and The Love We Share Without Knowing, is a young adult book set in rural Ohio dealing with one young man’s discovery of his family’s magic, his own sexuality, and the complex history of the land he lives on. Aidan Lockwood comes to one day, as if he’s been living in a waking sleep, when his childhood best friend arrives in town again and calls out his name in the high school hallway—reminding him of all of the things he’d lost and forgotten, things that had been hidden inside him.

Aidan, with Jarrod’s help, begins to uncover the invisible world surrounding him and a curse that has been haunting his family. A complex web of influence—stories, magic, love—has driven Aidan’s story around him for longer than he knew. Now, he must begin weaving that story if he wants to protect himself and his family.

Some spoilers.

Barzak is a writer whose work I genuinely appreciate; his prose is rich, lyrical, and thoroughly well-observed. I’ve previously reviewed his short story collections Birds and Birthdays (Aqueduct Press) and Before and Afterlives (Lethe Press). He’s a writer who shifts interestingly between modes: this is a young adult novel while much of his fiction is oriented toward adults—though not all. The shared thread is a focus on the supernatural that skates just along the underside of everyday life, paired with a clear observation of the realities of that everyday life. If I were thinking about parsing out a description of the genre these works tend to fall under, I’d say it’s a very particular type of Rust Belt American magic-realism. (And I’m absolutely down for that. It’s a treat.)

This is particularly true of Wonders of the Invisible World, set as it is in a rural township outside of Youngstown, Ohio. The land is itself quite a character. The introductory chapter, which frames the story as Aidan is telling it, notes that Mosquito Lake was an artificial lake created over an old mining town that remains down at the bottom, invisible except to the folks who know to look for it. That’s a solid metaphor for the book as a whole—and Aidan, our storyteller, knows it. The representation of a thriving, rich, invisible world of supernatural and magical influence flowing right alongside the everyday lives of the impoverished small town Temperance is one of the most striking things about this book, handled as it is with deftness and skill.

In fact, the thoughtful and clever construction of the world of this novel feels so natural—so effortless—that it was almost easy to miss the workmanship as I read. I was absorbed by the plot and the characters, that driving movement forward as Aidan uncovers all of these secrets, his family’s and his own, while also falling in love with Jarrod. It’s an eminently readable book, a quick-paced but thoughtful exploration of a very clean and clear narrative arc. This is, of course, as we discover at the end, because it’s the story Aidan tells to bargain for his mother’s life from an avatar of Death: it’s always already been a version of life that’s true but constructed. And Aidan knows that from the start, too.

I don’t often see that level of narrative care, that sort of intentionality in framing and phrasing, in young adult fiction; I was thrilled beyond measure to encounter it here. Barzak balances the speed and conciseness of his narrative perfectly alongside the complexity of its themes and imagery. It’s a delightful melding of the things I like best about his adult fiction and the things I like best about contemporary fantastical YA—a very good pairing. There are occasional moments in the first section that do feel a bit rushed, like things are moving too fast for the sake of introducing a bunch of ideas without sketching much connective tissue between them, but it turns out that’s also a useful way of representing Aidan’s own distorted experience of the events. Clever, that.

The romance is also handled well, I thought, as are the political and family concerns of coming out as a teenage boy in love with another teenage boy in a small town. Jarrod can seem almost too perfect on occasion—like he’s the ideal assistant to Aidan’s self-discovery—but, well, that is the perception Aidan paints of him for the audience. He’s also driven by a long-term love he’s been fanning the flames of since they were kids, ready to come back and rescue his beloved from lost memories when the time is right. There are layers, in their romance, of the fairytale: the prince who wakes the other prince with a kiss from an enchanted slumber, for example. Because the only reason Aidan’s mother’s story—her attempt to wipe them off the narrative face of the earth and protect them from the curse—didn’t work was that she failed to understand that her son loved another boy.

I also love the parents, here. Aidan’s mother is presented like you’d expect from a teenager’s point of view: very sure she’s doing the right thing, while we’re sure she’s just been blinded by adulthood. Except it’s a little of both, and she’s very sympathetic even when Aidan thinks she’s a liar. Her resilience and drive are a good bracket for Aidan’s own, though he has trouble seeing it. The family lineage of magic and curses and love is all about mothers, to some extent, and the sacrifices they’re willing to make. It’s a good through-line underneath the more mystery-driven plot.

Overall, Wonders of the Invisible World is a solid outing: it’s got all of the things I’d hoped it would. Barzak’s prose is also a real pleasure. He manages to maintain the simplicity and cleanness of Aidan’s voice while also slipping in delightful metaphors and images, because Aidan himself is a storyteller, though a young one. The complexity of the pairing of real and the unreal here is striking, too, and rather haunting at times. I had a great time reading it, and it was perhaps over too soon; a quick read, certainly, though one I might go back to with pleasure.

Wonders of the Invisible World is available now from Knopf.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

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