We Will All Go Down Together, Gemma Files. ISBN 9781771482011, ChiZine Publications, Sept 2014. Reviewed by Claire Humphrey.
Canadian literature has a reputation for dourness, for tracking dysfunction down the generations of families, for using crop failure as a metaphor for miscarriage and vice versa. When current writers engage and transform these tropes, the results are sometimes unexpected. In We Will All Go Down Together, Gemma Files takes the CanLit family saga as the starting point of a delightful and horrifying genre mashup, and the resulting creation is at once strikingly new, and as Canadian as anything I’ve encountered.
This book is subtitled “Stories of the Five-Family Coven”. Roughly half of the pieces are brand new; others were previously published in anthologies. Here, regardless, they shine: what might have been throwaway hints in a standalone piece become, in this context, rewards for the attentive reader, tying together the five families’ many scions and their histories into a sprawling but coherent narrative.
The Five-Family Coven: the words sound immediately portentous, weighted with history, and indeed everything we learn of the Coven adds to that weight. From the moment we first meet Alizoun Rusk, Jonet Devize, and — most terrible — Euwphaim Glouwer, strolling up out of Dourvale arm in arm, we feel their power. And yet the Coven is no sooner met than fractured: the Druir and Roke families are landowners and lairds, unwilling to lose their temporal power to accusations of witchcraft, and they leave Alizoun, Jonet, and Euwphaim to burn. This is clearly not going to go as planned, for as Euwphaim says, “…in the Witches’ Book there is but one Commandment only, yet that one deemed unbreakable: Revenge yourselves, or die.”
In the moment, such is Euwphaim’s specific gravity, we almost want her to succeed, unrepentant baby-eater that she is. Maybe it’s because we are shown just how few ways to power she has; a scholar in later years reading Euwphaim’s dittay thinks, “These doomed, powerless women with their spells and their pacts, scrabbling for some sort of recompense, a voice to cry out in vain against this world that grinds them like corn, leaving them nowhere to stand but the scaffold.”
But of course, there are five families, and their descendants multiply, intermarry, love, learn, fail, make alliances, break commandments, and drag other folk into their entanglements. Many of the stories in this book function, in effect, as origin stories for the players in the final confrontation. By the time that confrontation comes, we’ve long since given up rooting for anyone’s victory over anyone else, and we’re more concerned with whether anyone at all will get out alive. This concern is a tribute to Files’ characters, each one vivid and convincing, multivalent, multicultural and sympathetic in spite of, or even because of, their flaws.
Files displays astonishing range both at the micro level–voicing everything from the dense, ominous poetics of Euwphaim’s confession of witchcraft to the intellectual, scatological ramblings of Jude Hark Chiu-Wai, present-day mage–and the macro, managing to pack warrior nuns, Templars, ghosts both hostile and tender, corrupt angels, and diverse other monsters into a richly grounded Toronto. And yet all this density still left me wanting more. If I had any complaint, it would be that the ending of the book turned on actions by some of the less-central characters, whose motivations weren’t entirely clear to me; but since these stories, though linked, are not a novel, I can’t say it’s fair of me to try to read them as one.
I can only hope for a followup; in the words of the prologue, another “legend strange things tell each other, a bedtime fable recited by monsters, to monsters.”