Dear Reader: a book can change you.
Lauren B. Davis does not directly address readers in The Grimoire of Kensington Market, but the invitation is clear with her decision to begin on the threshold of the Grimoire.
Elsewhere, a grimoire is a book of magic, a bound volume, a reference; here, the Grimoire is not a book but a bookshop. A bookshop with pull: “People didn’t wander into the Grimoire. It wasn’t that kind of bookshop.” Step into the shop and step into the story.
Proprietor Maggie Marchette travels daily through the maze of the Grimoire’s shelves and stacks, “a place with a somewhat porous barrier between the sacred and the mundane,” where books appear and disappear regularly for people who are “looking for answers to mysteries in their lives more than entertainment.”
Like Maggie, readers are accustomed to locating themselves in relationship to stories, accustomed to inhabiting their borderlands: the spaces between book covers and narratives, the spaces where stories and selves mingle. Here is a bookstore that grows and shrinks as books arrive and depart, that welcomes readers who understand this kind of shape-shifting.
Yet, the bookshop is rooted in reality, in Toronto’s Kensington Market. This is a neighbourhood many readers will recognize as part of the world they inhabit, whether as resident or tourist. Even armchair travelers can recognize it via novels like Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square, Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky, Sarah Dearing’s Courage My Love, Carrianne K. Y. Leung’s The Wondrous Woo and Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts.
Specific references to an urban landscape are useful for readers who are uncomfortable with reading fantasy. The Necropolis, the Canada Malting Silos, the Rogers Centre, Allan Gardens, even the cow statues in the financial district: today’s Toronto is in clear evidence.
This specificity is used to disorient rather than root, however, which readers realize when the Regent Park neighbourhood is referred to as The Forest. Maggie knows this area from an earlier time in her life, a time both integrally connected to her daily life and far from her current reality as proprietor of the Grimoire.
In this earlier time, she was addicted to Elysium: “The Elysium longs for you, longs to hold you, longs to dream for you and ease your grief.” In Greek mythology, Elysium represents an afterlife for the heroic; in this novel, it is a black tar-like substance smoked in a pipe, which leads users – Pipers – to a temporary refuge.
Both space and time behave peculiarly in this story. Maggie can feel an age removed from her life as an addict and, simultaneously, be just a moment from resuming the habit; the shadows in the morning fall in the direction of evening shadows; elevators move “ahead” and “astern,” not only up and down; streets shrink; buildings shift; and even the garden behind The Grimoire can grow smaller and darker, larger and lighter.
This is a fantastical world. More specifically, it is a fantasy inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” originally published in 1844. Although it is a very popular story for illustrated retellings, written with children in mind, other novelists writing for adults have reworked the classic story, including Joan B. Vinge, Mercedes Lackey, and Michael Cunningham, whose 2015 retelling also incorporates addiction.
Davis’ fourth novel, The Empty Room, considers the impact of addiction directly on the life of Colleen Kerrigan, but here Davis moves beyond the surface of addiction to the powers which lurk below, to what motivates a person’s yearning for oblivion.
Davis more directly references her earlier works in The Grimoire of Kensington Market when Maggie notices a book in the Grimoire and then watches it disappear: The Stubborn Season, one of the “forgotten and lost,” and also the title of Davis’ first novel, which was published in 2002. Her debut is also set in Toronto and tells the story of a handful of characters who struggle to gain stability, including Douglas MacNeill, who is an alcoholic.
Writers familiar with Davis’ writing will, however, spot many other connections to her earlier work, which consistently addresses expansive themes by focusing on individuals who confront conflict and difficulty. Not only does addiction figure in The Stubborn Season, but in the 2005 novel, The Radiant City (shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize), Matthew believes that “everything is measured out in nightmares” and finds temporary relief in oblivion created by prescription medication and alcohol.
In the 2014 novel Against a Darkening Sky, Wilona considers using a dagger to “skin herself to erase every trace if she could,” in an archetypal battle between good and evil, which is set in 7th-century Northumbria. And in Our Daily Bread, the 2011 novel (longlisted for the Giller Prize), Ivy states that “[f]ear is a fact of life” and Dorothy observes: “Tom faced several deaths – death of his marriage, death of the future he had believed in, death of trust, death of the possibility of loving and being loved. Perhaps the worst of all, that.”
Throughout Davis’ writing, characters journey towards a kind of healing that is often undefined but desperately needed. Even in her short fiction, familiar themes resurface. In “The Poet’s Corner,” June speaks with Roddy, who makes his home in the Church Street subway, about underground communities that seem a million miles away from her day job. In “Rat Medicine,” Nellie retreats from damage: “I kept thinking it should hurt more, but it just felt like numbness everywhere, great stains of frozen places bursting out from under his icy fists and feet.” And Chrissie, in “Yours Truly,” sets out on a journey and finds the “warm, hopeful promise of feathers” in a city intersection in “Wings.” (“The Poet’s Corner” and “Rat Medicine” were published in Rat Medicine and Other Unlikely Curatives in 2000; “Yours Truly” was published in An Unrehearsed Desire in 2008.)
Whether in long or short works, Davis’ style is consistently direct and uncluttered. The occasional metaphor is rooted in the language of the story and even the characters who are most bookish (like Colleen in The Empty Room, who reads everything from Fyodor Dostoyevsky to Dorothy Parker to, yes, Hans Christian Andersen) use language in its simplest terms.
In The Grimoire of Kensington Market, readers find night “as thick as a boiled-wool cloak,” “a tweed travelling suit the colour of oak leaves in autumn,” and blue eyes “bright as a dragonfly’s wing.” The language of fairy tales is something else, however, natural but also archetypal, and Davis is an accomplished writer who achieves the necessary balance between richness and simplicity.
Maggie is on a quest – even her last name ‘Marchette’ suggests movement – to rescue her brother, Kyle, whose addiction to Elysium is thriving. It is significant that Maggie is the rescuer. There are some collections of fairy tales and folktales which emphasize the strength and courage of women and girls – including Katrin Hyman Tchana’s The Serpent Slayer: And Other Stories of Strong Women, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and Kathleen Ragan’s Fearless Girls, Wise Women & Beloved Sisters. Traditionally, however, the female characters in fairy tales are on the sidelines: not the rescuers, but those who wait for rescue.
Our hero in The Grimoire of Kensington Market faces many trials, but the most villainous character is Srebrenka, who is Kyle’s Elysium dealer. Maggie also knows Srebrenka well, having been introduced to her eight years ago by Maggie’s ex-boyfriend. Srebrenka is “an envious, restless, irritable and discontented soul. Always wants what isn’t good for her or anybody else and is never satisfied. She is, to be blunt, nothing but a bottomless pit of insatiable hunger, the essence of addiction.”
Maggie’s use of Elysium may be what led Kyle down the path to Srebrenka’s door. (Doorways and entrances, passages and escapes: thresholds are vitally important in a story about quests, although discussing them in detail would spoil the story.)
This regret may be Maggie’s primary incentive to rescue Kyle despite her intense fear of Srebrenka’s and Elysium’s territory in the Forest: “It burrowed into your darkest crannies – your memories, your heart – and found the things you regretted most, the things you feared, the things of which you were ashamed, and dragged them out into the world, first in dreams, and then in hallucinations.” Nonetheless, she accepts responsibility and moves towards Kyle, simultaneously aware of risks and possibilities, her dual capacity: “We harm and we heal.” Perhaps more than anything, this is a story of forgiveness.
Beyond questing and shape-shifting, archetypal elements abound. Things happen in threes: a bottle is slammed three times before it breaks in a bar fight, there are three bears carved into ice, and Mr. Strundale gives Maggie three items in a blue enamel box intended to aid in her travels. The feathered and furred play significant roles: a dapple-grey pony at the CNE, an owl tattoo, a white bear pulling a sleigh, and human feet that turn into a lynx’s paws. And there are mirrors, shards, thorns, riddles, a horse-drawn carriage, and a broken-down ruin of a once-glorious hall.
There are charms and gifts but also challenges and roadblocks. In the past, Maggie’s doubts and fears were overwhelming and even after she found a haven in the Grimoire, she felt unable to share it with others in need. Over time, the Grimoire allows her world to expand to include a “both-and” perspective, allows her to see beyond the “either-or” limitations of her earlier life. It is, literally, transforming and transformative.
In short, a lot happens. Maggie’s story is a “complicated web. Too complicated. Best to focus on the small patch before her. One foot in front of the other. Each one, she hoped, leading home.”
And all of this moving forward to the ending actually does lead Maggie and readers back to the beginning: a movement as old as human experience, as old as story.
It reminds us that the “choices you make along the way are your contribution to the writing of that story, the spells you weave within the greater spell of the Book of Life itself.”
It reminds us of the circles that we travel in and observe, whether in smoke rings or clouds around the moon or the circadian rhythm of our lives.
It reminds us that the space inside a book shop can be larger than it appears because a single story is large enough to hold many readers. Lauren B. Davis’ The Grimoire of Kensington Market is an enchantment, a forgiveness, and an entertainment.
A book can change you, Dear Reader.
Marcie McCauley's work has appeared in Room, Other Voices, Mslexia, Tears in the Fence and Orbis, and has been anthologized by Sumac Press. She writes about writing at marciemccauley.com and about reading at buriedinprint.com. A descendant of Irish and English settlers, she lives in the city currently called Toronto, which was built on the homelands of Indigenous peoples - Haudenosaunee, Anishnaabeg, Huron-Wendat and Mississaugas of New Credit - land still inhabited by their descendants.