Christelle Dabos is probably most famous for her Mirror Visitor Quartet, a high-concept fantasy tetralogy about a dystopian future, individuals with abilities powered by living gods, and an arranged marriage plot engine that soon evolves into a search for God itself. This time around, however, Dabos is looking at the micro instead of the macro, focusing on a mysterious school called Here and the pupils within, to explore the perils of the schools system.
The concept of Here, and Only Here is intriguing enough – the school is run by a group of mysterious pupils known only by their numbers (Number One, Number Two, etc) – and the narrative is elastic enough, bouncing around from an adrift new starter at the school, to an outcast, to a girl on the cusp of puberty, to a substitute teacher. The tone is somewhere between literary and magical realist – the school is an enigma, the new starter finds herself having turned invisible.
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It’s a real shame then that Here, and Only Here all but sinks under the weight of its own ambitions, becoming a muddled mess of a story that, noble intentions aside, cannot really work out what kind of work it wants to be. It’s both a fable about looking after one another, a metaphor for the end of the world, and a treatise on how cruel school can be everyone, no matter your position in the pecking order. The problem is that it can’t focus on one of these and make it the primary theme, instead trying to juggle handfuls of characters and plot and themes with no endgame as to what to do with them.
This isn’t to say that Here, and Only Here is a complete misfire; there are moments of real pathos sprinkled throughout and the ending, however potentially unjustified, still manages to pull at the heartstrings and earn a moment of emotional catharsis. Dabos is a talented writer unafraid to tackle complex issues and it shows here, for better and for worse; even when the overall work is a mess, Dabos’ writing is crisp and sharp.
Those expecting an addictive, accessible work like Dabos’ fantasy back catalogue in Here, and Only Here will walk away disappointed, but those who are willing to stick with the sprawling, messy narrative, will find moments of brilliance within and an honest, if somewhat unrealised statement about our lasting impact on one another.
Here, and Only Here is out on 26th October from Europa Editions.