Sarah O'Connor Reviews Lauren B. Davis's The Grimoire of Kensington Market
Fairy tales speak to readers, no matter what age. Maybe it’s the magic of them - the talking flowers, animal companions, and daring quests that add some imaginary excitement into our lives. Maybe it’s the inherent darkness that has always been present at their core no matter how many people try to scrub it away: the mothers who die and the evil stepmothers who replace them, the wolf lurking in the woods and bed, the stranger who pretends to be kind. Maybe it’s the belief that we can be brave and fight the darkness that life throws at us, regardless of how hopeless it may seem.
Fairy-tale adaptions, especially in adult fiction, allow readers to escape into the strange innocence of fairy tales while relating to adult topics and conflicts. After all, “That’s what a story is: a kind of spell we cast over our lives, and the lives of those close to us, it’s the effect we have on our world and the effect that world has on us.” Lauren B. Davis achieves this effect in her new novel The Grimoire of Kensington Market by using a fairy-tale adaption to tell a story about familial love, guilt, and drug abuse.
When thinking of fairy-tale adaptions and metaphors of drug abuse, one might think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, long associated and overanalyzed as a story about drug abuse. Davis, however, frames her story with a different fairy tale – Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen – adapting it to discuss drug abuse and addiction, partly inspired by her own brother’s death by suicide.
The Grimoire of Kensington Market follows Maggie, the current owner of the Grimoire, a strange and magical bookshop that holds the world’s stories and appears to those who need it. Recently rehabilitated from the dangerous drug Elysium, which has infiltrated downtown Toronto and sends users into an irresistible dream state, Maggie enjoys her quiet life at the Grimoire reading books and helping the few patrons who manage to find the shop. But one day Maggie’s old dealer Srebrenka returns and tries to tempt Maggie back on the pipe. Though Maggie refuses, she learns that her addict brother Kyle needs her help, and she’ll have to travel to the Silver World of Elysium and Srebrenka to do it.
Davis’s novel tackles drug abuse in a beautifully heartbreaking and honest way that also manages to discuss guilt, acceptance, and responsibility without the story feeling clunky. These issues and topics are discussed through the lens of magic. The magic in Davis’s novel is already a very real part of the world that Maggie is more than familiar with it. She knows how dark magic can be through her experience with Elysium, how it twists and turns and can pretend to be beautiful. Throughout the novel, Maggie learns of its many faces, how it can be destructive and addictive as it was for herself and her brother, but also lovely and healing, depending on how one interacts with it.
And therein lies the heart of Davis’s story: the weight of the choices we make, and our responsibility to accept their consequences. Maggie comes to acknowledge her own guilt for her brother’s condition and their responsibility for the choices they’ve made in life. As Maggie comes to recognize in the novel, “We are all responsible for the mess in the world, and we are all responsible for cleaning it up. It’s not either-or, is it? It’s both-and. We harm and we heal.”
The Grimoire of Kensington Market is a stunning novel and a great experimentation with magical realism. Davis brings readers into this genre flawlessly, using a purely Canadian-flavoured magical realism that makes the novel unique among Canadian literature and other fairy-tale adaptions. Readers won’t be able to help but fall under its spell, because the Grimoire only appears to those who are meant to find it, and if you’re lucky that will be you.
Sarah O'Connor is a writer from Hamilton, Ontario whose work has been published in The Hamilton Spectator, Incite Magazine, and The Hamilton Youth Anthology: Volumes 1 and 2. In 2015 she co-created "Stuck in a Story Productions" with her sister and their web series can currently be watched on Youtube. Her play "Beep" will be performed at the HamilTEN Festival in 2019. If you'd like to read more of Sarah's work you can do so on her blog: www.notsarahconnorwrites.com.