Martha Macnamara has come to California to find her daughter Elizabeth, who appears to have disappeared. While searching for her she meets the enigmatic Mayland Long, an oriental gentleman of indeterminate age with lovely long fingers that can reach all the way around a teacup and – importantly for Martha’s day job as a musician – span two full octaves on a piano. He lives in the hotel that Martha is staying in and becomes an integral part of her search for Elizabeth and the resolution of the trouble she has found herself in.
I bought this when I was 14 and have read it I-don’t-know-how-many times over the years. It baffled me for a while: it was marketed as Fantasy, had a dragon on the cover but it felt like a cop-out to me because Mayland Long didn’t appear to display any supernatural abilities save that he seemed to have lived longer than a regular person should have and was stronger than a normal human. The plot also felt like an episode of a generic amateur detective show about an old lady and her mystical boyfriend (Now that I am just a few months away from Martha’s age in this story, there is a painful irony to that sentence).
What kept me going back to it was the utter charm and delight gotten from reading it. It was one of the first books I enjoyed because of the characters rather than the situation or story. Martha and Mayland meet, share a meal and a cup of tea, and discuss poetry and music. Then they go looking for Elizabeth and Martha disappears, leaving Mayland to find them both.
It is a fantastic book. Astonishingly, it was also Ms MacAvoy’s debut novel. It contains a simple story about fraud and murder amongst software entrepreneurs, but it is MacAvoy’s style and joy in writing that makes it uniquely brilliant.
She creates ruthless and violent characters (who are still charming and likeable) who are pragmatic with their use of murder and violence but it also contains gems like
“He told me that he used to be ten yards long and solid black, with a head like a chrysanthemum. Not any other flower – he insisted it was a chrysanthemum.”
“… to have come so far, to this stone city where the ocean was on the wrong side of the sun.”
Sentences like this induce a sense of genuine uneasiness in the reader about the nature of the world but also give them a real thrill at how the author has used simple words and ideas to show us character and personality. And they are, as I said, great characters. Martha retains a zest for life that a character with less strength would have lost years before: she’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that often deals with women of her age as being wise/ scheming matriarchs or browbeaten drudges. And Mayland begins the novel with a melancholy that comes from having lived too long in a world and a form that he feels uncomfortable in.
Which is what I love about MacAvoy’s books: her knack at creating an empathy for unusual (as opposed to “quirky”) characters is one that I wish many other authors were able to emulate. But not too many, please, lest what makes her unique becomes commonplace.
Find out more about R. A. MacAvoy at https://ramacavoy.com/