review of Tara Isabella Burton's 'Here in Avalon'
“Down in Albion, we’re black and blue, but we don’t talk about that…”
- Babyshambles, Albion
“I’ll tell you what I want. Magic. Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misinterpret things. I don’t tell the truth. I tell you what ought to be.”
- Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
Do you believe in fairies?
I’m not sure I ever did. But I grew up being told they were real in the same way other children are told about God. My mother told me about the first time she’d seen them, in the bluebell wood by the farm in Pen-y-Bryn. The time, in Ireland, when three moss-swaddled stones turned into a family of trolls. The trolls spoke to her, told her things. The banshee she heard one evening by the crossroads—coming home to her friend Kieran and telling him where she’d heard it and him replying, gravely, “ah, that’ll be the postman,” who was sure enough dead the next morning. The vision she’d had of Brigid bringing me to earth, giving me my name. She told me these things with a conviction that was hard to question.
She was a healer. When I was six or seven a local landowner agreed to give her use of forty-two acres of farmland and woods and the ruins of an old manor house and pit-pony hospital, right behind the colliery where generations of my family had worked and died. Over ten years the woodland became the faerie realm, full of willow-woven bridges and fierce dragon heads carved out of cedar trees and great iron sheets to make the wings. At the entrance to the woods was an ancient oak tree called Daerog and we strung up a maypole near it for Beltane and told stories about the mischievous spirits who made their home in the old trees. Up the hill there were cob huts (where we spent one miserable winter) and polytunnels and sculpture gardens. There was one sculpture where you could make out a little figure of me, dancing around Stonehenge at the solstice.
My fairy-godmother, Rebekah, always smelled of patchouli and had this Irish lilt to her voice and she was so beautiful, with long red hair and long cotton dresses draped over a thin frame. She had a wart on her nose that might’ve been from a badly-healed nose piercing but made her seem immediately like a witch. She was a witch—she did rituals with blood and fire and took us to the sea at full moon to chant in its long silver veil in the water.
My mother’s magic embarrassed me; it was too sincere. Rebekah’s magic was different. It was her beauty, the way she drew people to her, when she would speak and her eyes would twinkle. She told stories of Avalon, Nimue, the Lady of the Lake. When she talked about magic you wanted to believe her.
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My mother’s project wasn’t a cult. There were volunteers and WWOOFers who would come and live on the site for a while, in caravans with goat skulls hanging outside or in the sustainable structures we’d made. But there was a no drugs and no alcohol policy and my mother was always careful about the people she let in. There was a commune nearby with a woodland full of enormous sculptures that you could climb over: a giant’s throne or outstretched palm. The rumour went that a man we knew had moved there and entranced the women and taken them away to the valleys and started a brothel. I don’t know if there’s any truth to it. But in the festivals and gatherings (which turned into raves where feral children ran around unfed), I learnt to be wary of drifters, spiritual seekers, broken people with grand ideals.
I wanted to be a serious person.
I haven’t been reading or writing lately, but when Stephen asked me to review Here in Avalon, Tara Isabella Burton’s latest novel, I said yes. I met Tara last year in Oxford and then in London for the launch of her book Self-Made. She did her doctorate in Theology at Oxford, which is what I’m theoretically doing at present. The book is about two sisters named Rose (my name) and Cecilia (whose feast my birthday falls on) and features a riverboat manned by immersive theatre people (I lived on a boat which, when I arrived, was stuffed with second-hand stage costumes from the Royal Shakespeare Company; I shoved them into a storage space in the prow with distaste and had the boat blessed to get rid of the polyamorous sex demons).
I believe in providence—or as my mother would call it, synchronicity.
For these and many other reasons, Here in Avalon hit close to home. It’s a book about being twenty-eight and wanting the world to make sense and trying to buy into a disciplined, corporate, settled vision of success, about finding something amiss, pivoting hard in the opposite direction and, finally, trusting one’s own capacity to make a good life in the messy in-between: neither corporate urbanism nor cults. It’s about magic and order, about the sense that there’s a deeper meaning underlying all things, about truth and goodness and beauty and the trouble with treating these three as natural bedfellows.
The book begins with two sisters. Rose, the younger, is a serious person. She is reliable, successful and goal-oriented. She studied math and computer science and got a job coding for an NYC start-up called OptiMyze which tells people how to live similarly successful, goal-oriented lives and then at My.th, producing meditation and mindfulness audio tracks customised according to the user’s heart rate data. She has a fiancée, Caleb, the founder of OptiMyze. They spend their time going to chic bars with other successful couples and curled up on the sofa listening to podcasts about the evolutionary basis for polyamory or the top five most common cognitive biases.
Cecilia, meanwhile, is a romantic, a spiritual seeker, a fuck-up at thirty. She throws herself over and over again at the mercy of Fate and comes crawling back to her sister and their Tudor City apartment when it goes wrong, smelling of sweat and incense and cigarettes. She has an astral projection phase, converts to Catholicism, lives on a houseboat on the Thames, marries a man she’s only known a few weeks, follows every sign. When she gets married, she writes to her sister: “Finally, I’ve found my grail.” Then, a few months later, she shows up at the Tudor City apartment.
Cecilia sticks around for a while, fitting uneasily into Rose’s life, saying uncomfortable things about soulmates and getting music gigs and refusing to talk about why she left her husband. When he follows her to New York, she comes back from having seen him caked in glitter with matted hair and lipstick on her cheek, bearing a small, calligraphed card which reads Another life is possible and, beneath, THE AVALON CABARET. Cecilia says the woman who gave it to her was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.
Cecilia starts flaking on plans, missing shifts, lying about where she’s been. Then, finally, she tells Rose about a boat which appears under the full moon, manned by a harlequin boy with a flute, a boatman in seersucker, people who weren’t ordinary people, who didn’t seem human:
‘“There were—things they did; the way the light moved, and the shadows, the way things changed color…” Cecilia’s smile was feverish. “Oh, Rosie, haven’t you ever wondered if—you know—it might all be real?”
“What might be real?”
When Cecilia disappears, Paul says that she had called, just before, to say she was going away with the fairies. Caleb tells Rose that stuff can only get to her if she lets it. “I thought we were aligned on this,” he says. Rose finds fragments of a card in the fireplace—Cecilia, “for whom everything was a kind of rite”, having tried to burn it—with the address of a PO Box. Another life is possible, the card reads. And so Rose begins her search for Avalon.
The sketch of yuppie NYC tech start-up culture has echoes of American Psycho, updated for the data economy. The product is self-optimisation, preying on the nascent sense of meaninglessness by selling algorithmically-generated meaning to customers via Instagram ads. There are girls who do TikTok videos reading Spengler’s Decline of the West out loud in their underwear and podcasts about applying kabbalistic techniques in the workplace. Every tradition is mined for profitable soundbites promising fulfilment if you buy this app. Rose watches pilates videos on her phone and tries to quieten the sense that something is wrong.
When Rose finds The Avalon, she never thinks about the life she left behind. She never mentions Caleb again.
The Avalon—it’s unclear whether this refers to the troupe, the boat, or the final destination—leads across the waters to an overgrown rose garden and a house, where the magical cabaret troupe reside on their off hours. They take the boat into the city in search of lost souls to dazzle with an all-night, bespoke, immersive theatre experience. They offer an overwhelming experience of beauty: a boat bedecked in roses and jasmine and lilies, a troupe of costumed and supernaturally beautiful dancers, musicians, singers, a boy in a harlequin ruff offering a tray of champagne, music written for one evening and then burned. The colour-changing flowers and floating flames, which Cecilia had mistaken for magic, turn out to be engineering marvels—lighting, hidden motors, motion sensors. The champagne turns out to be prosecco. But then there’s the music.
When Rose first hears the music onboard the Avalon, she breaks apart a little: “all she knew…was that there was a fissure inside her, that the pieces of her soul did not fit together as neatly as once they had.” Later in the book, when the troupe finds a new lost soul to invite aboard, the girl listens to the performance and asks Cecilia, “it’s more real than real, isn’t it?”
Beauty does this—it rattles us. It points in the direction of another reality. It can be the gateway to faith and it can knock out our old certainties with more or less aggression. For me, it was evensong; for people who draw mandalas and take ketamine, maybe it was immersive theatre at Boomtown. But beauty is just a foretaste, a sign of the reality to come. It’s not a reality in itself. It’s very easy to let beauty lead you into a cult.
Cecilia tells Rose that the Avalon aims to give people “a sense of enchantment… A sense that suddenly the whole world’s opening up before you.” The boat had moved from California to New Orleans to New York. In New Orleans, there had been a death. Cecilia tells Rose that they had to get out of there quickly because a police investigation would’ve destroyed the magic. “It’s not just tricks,” Cecilia says. “Rosie—it’s everything. We’re creating a whole world.”
One of the residents, Cassidy, was once an Episcopal priest who’d lost his faith. He says that on those first night onboard The Avalon Cabaret he felt like “the world was shot through with stardust.” He quotes Dostoyevsky: beauty will save the world. It’s the same line that Joseph Ratzinger quotes in his address to the Communion and Liberation meeting in Rimini in 2002. Ratzinger reminds us that Dostoyevsky is talking about the redeeming beauty of Christ. This is a paradoxical beauty, embracing suffering and pain. He warns against “a beauty that is deceptive and false, a dazzling beauty that does not bring human beings out of themselves to open them to the ecstasy of rising to the heights, but indeed locks them entirely into themselves.” This beauty stirs in us a desire to possess an object; it doesn’t open us to the transcendent reality of the divine. But at the same time he warns against the cult of the ugly, which says that all beauty is deceptive and denies any relationship between beauty and truth.
Truth, goodness, beauty—only the last isn’t fully a Christian virtue. There are too many lepers in the Gospels. Goodness and truth are nailed together so that one can never be without the other, but beauty? Beauty is a sign, but an unreliable one. Creation is beautiful, but so is the apple which seduces Eve.
Earlier this week, I went to an open mic night at the cafe downstairs. It’s once a month and mostly old hippies and assorted misfits who’ve been going for decades. You walk in and it’s like being hit with a wall of patchouli and incense. It’s very left-wing.
At the start I’m all seized up. I absolutely refuse to join in the group sing-a-long and feel myself recoiling further and further into the sofa. Everyone is talking about vulnerability. But then as it goes on, it’s like a latch opens inside me.
A woman gets up to perform “The world turned upside down,” a protest song from the 70s about the Diggers during the English Civil War. She’s added some extra verses at the end about the road protests in the 90s, when was among those who occupied the land around Newbury that was scheduled for clearance to make way for a new bypass. The protestors lived in treehouses and camps. The trees had names: Granny Ash, Middle Oak. They sang songs like this that connected them to older English revolutionary traditions and stories older still about a land still alive with magic. In Obedience is Freedom, Jacob Phillips writes of the free parties that sprung up around the camps:
“The legends of people attending such parties and never going home built a corresponding mythos around them, connected to the Levellers, to ancient tales of youths living nomadically among the trees and in the earth like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, or of fairytales of old, where people eat a forbidden fruit and vanish from the normal plain of existence immediately.”
A sign at one of the Newbury protest camps read: Let it not be said, and said unto your shame, that there was beauty here, before you came.
Beyond the rose garden, the iron gates are locked. “Why?” “To preserve the magic.” Magic is fragile and liable to break.
What is magic? To charm, to enchant, to influence, to bewitch. In the first weeks of love, I’m a spellcaster. I arrange the circumstances: the scene, the costumes, the lighting, the props, the characters. Sometimes it feels like God is conspiring with me, casting down the providential note of approval. I check my weather app with pagan superstition, as if a cloudy sky will destroy the high romance and leave us looking like foolish, self-indulgent children. I invest in silk sheets, beeswax candles, the best coffee.
Magic gets exhausting. All that running around playing God, creating a whole world. A neurotic magician stuffing prescription slips into drawers and trying never to betray irritation, never to argue. It’s a narrowing of what’s possible. It’s a refusal of love beyond its most superficial level.
Cassidy says that beauty must be protected from pain. In Avalon, nobody falls in love. Love, when lived out, breaks the spell—love brings pain, arguments, the difficulty of fitting two people together, the annoyances and betrayals and tedium of committing to someone. A seventeen-year-old girl, marked for a no return trip, declares that she doesn’t believe in consummated love — it never lives up to what you think it’ll be. “That’s why I’ve decided that I want to dedicate my life to Art.” “Hear hear!” Cassidy calls out. “Beauty must be protected!”
“There’s a reason,” says Morgan, the Queen of Avalon, “why nobody ever falls in love at the Avalon. That’s the world’s love, not ours. That kind of love corrodes.”
The denizens of Avalon remain in perpetual childhood. Beauty must be protected. The ageing hippies had free love; now, the immersive theatre festival people are into ethical non-monogamy. Dividing love across multiple relationships works as a kind of erotic risk management. The risk of long-term commitment is avoided or, at least, mediated. The initial stage of love, the magic of it, is frequently re-enacted and preserved. The performance can go on forever. The Avalon moves on.
Beauty must be protected. The denizens of Avalon repeat this like a mantra. The kind of beauty that needs protecting is always semi-pagan. It’s illusion, suspended animation—a beautiful woman who never grows old, a mind that stays crystalline, a fig that never withers. Beauty must be protected. The first astonished weeks of love can never be allowed to see childbirth and tedium, petty arguments, the risk that accompanies commitment. Beauty is magic, the manipulation of reality that can conjure, briefly, a kind of perfection which the world cannot bear. The beatific vision—a different kind of beauty, eternal but unfrozen. Beauty’s slight of hand is to act like it can go on. Don’t break the spell.
The book’s real success, the really dark bit, is how easily Rose becomes convinced that the magic of Avalon is worth protecting at any cost. Murder, kidnapping, the separation of her sister from the husband she loves—anything is justified. It’s hard to explain the slow twist of the mind where things which were once inexcusable become ambivalent or even good; you find yourself looking incredulously at your past self, wondering how you ever believed those things or held those values. Whether this is brainwashing or enlightenment depends on where you stand.
Unlike Cecilia, Rose has no illusions about Avalon. She’s not a romantic. She buys in because she believes in the vision.
There’s no moment where she gets a clear read on why her life in New York had been so alienating and meaningless and wrong. It grows under her skin, without her admitting it even to herself, pulling her in the direction of Avalon. Once there, this new enchanted world is “worth whatever sacrifices a person had to make to hold onto it.”
In a room in Oxford, theologians and historians and mythologists gather to talk about enchantment. One of them tells a story about the Arran Islands, where the tales the faeries tell are the stories of our lives.
Storytelling, too, is a kind of magic. We construct narratives which will sound credible, convincing, and true. We tell ourselves stories in order to explain why we walked out of that life and into this one—and, typically, why we left people behind.
The question posed at the end of Here in Avalon is: How do you know you’re in the right cult?
At the end, Rose and Paul and Cecilia pass through the gate of Avalon and onto a narrow suburban street. They emerge, astonished, into the real world.
I cried as I read the end of the book. Maybe because I’m twenty-eight and don’t know what I’m doing; maybe because of the boats, the costumes, the parties; maybe because the questions “do you believe in fairies?” and “do you believe in God?” are closer than I’ve liked to admit. Here in Albion, I have my strange communities of boat people and hippies and over-educated Catholics who gather for reading groups on Charles Taylor and commit their lives to virtue, who talk about liturgy, ritual, enchantment. Sometimes there are miracles.
More often, there are just ordinary people, mostly broken, whose quests for truth and goodness and beauty are marked by failure. If there is a sacred thread running through all things, something more real than real, this is where it gets worked out—in a willingness to see people as they are, in the light of day, to love them whether on a grey street or in a carnival.
Check out Rose’s review of Madeline Cash’s ‘Earth Angel.’
Also check out Stephen’s review of ‘Here in Avalon’ for RealClearBooks, Taras’s appearance on the pod, and Tara’s appearance at the Holy Lit! event.
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graphic by Patrick Keohane @revolvingstyle
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