Lavondyss is perhaps the most problematic of Robert Holdstock’s Ryhope Wood books, the least accessible and at the same time the richest. It also plays the most games with time, narrative flow and character identity, and as such is either going to delight or frustrate the reader far more than an ordinary tale of a young girl lost in the wood has any right to.
The book begins (as does its followup, The Hollowing) in medias res, with a message to the infant Tallis Keeton from her elderly grandfather. This leaps to a scene of young Tallis discussing the secret names of places with the elderly composer Ralph Vaughn Williams. He gives her a trickle of insight into where some of the songs that have been whispered to her might have come from, and gives her the final key she needs to venture closer to Ryhope (which has been barred to her by forces both trifling and magical). It’s only then, when this curious exchange ends, that we are given the story of what leads up to it.
Tallis, it seems, was the brother of Harry Keeton, who traveled into Ryhope Wood years before and simply vanished. The disappearance has done much to sunder young Tallis’s family; her father is loving but a bit distant, while her mother is overprotective, and harbors resentments against Harry that still simmer in his absence.
Tallis lives hard by the village of Shadoxhurst, near both Ryhope Wood and Oak Lodge. The mysterious Huxleys have by this time passed into something approximating local lore. It’s now the 1950s, and George and his brood have long since vanished. Shadoxhurst continues in its version of normalcy. The wood is left alone, the annual morris dances remain fraught with unexplored meaning, and sightings of a legendary local stag called Broken Boy continue at irregular intervals, at least until Tallis starts coming of age.
Then, suddenly, the message left for her by her grandfather becomes weighted with meaning. Hooded figures from the wood start whispering to her. The secret names of places, each with its own rules, become vitally important. And Tallis begins making dolls and masks, each with a name that hints at a hidden power.
At the same time, Tallis’s story gets intertwined with that of a young prince named Scathach. Thanks to the power of the wood, the lines between their stories get blurred. Tallis tells Scathach’s story, yet also feels that she’s somehow in it, seeing his world through his sister’s eyes. And then, through the power of what’s been taught to her by the figures from the wood, she finds herself interfering with his story from the outside, reaching in from beyond the wood to guard his broken body from both friend and foe.
Just as Tallis is reaching in, however, the wood is reaching out to her. Its power disrupts the Shadoxhurst dances and, inevitably, pulls Tallis to it. More accurately, it sends Scathach, who harbors some secrets of his own, to her, to fetch her under the trees and into the story she’d both started to tell and started to live.
What follows seems, at first, to be a straightforward tale of Tallis’s life in the wood with Scathach and his companions. We meet her again at age 20, the mother of three children who have died, the scar-faced lover of the grim prince whose companions owe a terrible debt to a dark spirit of the wood. Gradually it becomes clear that Tallis and her lover are headed for that grim battle she observed from outside the wood so long ago, and the story begins to loop back on itself.
Weaving itself into the tale is also the story of George Huxley’s research partner, Wynne-Jones. He’s now dwelling in the wood as a shaman, well aware that he’s become part of the story that once flowed from his and Huxley’s subconscious. Trapped within the myth structure he’d once explored, he’s doomed by the pattern of narrative he’s folded himself into. At some point soon, the time of the shaman will end, and Wynne-Jones’s adopted son Tig will devour him, absorbing his dreams and leading his people into a new understanding. Tig himself is doomed, and Wynne-Jones knows this as well. And so, he does his best to smooth the course of the inevitable, all the while waiting with his daughter for the return of his half-mythago son.
To describe what happens next is to do an injustice to the book and to the reader. Suffice to say that all concerned find their destiny, while Tallis undergoes a cycle of rebirth and transformation that weaves her story through itself again and again. She finds her way home and yet she does not; she survives and yet she does not; she gives birth, and yet she does not. What the reader is ultimately left with is dizzying, exhilarating and thought-provoking. More than any of the other Ryhope books, Lavondyss is not heroic. Instead, it is a meditation on the nature of the heroic, and on the blurring of the lines between the teller of the tale and the tale itself. By itself, Lavondyss can be almost infuriatingly dense. Read in conjunction with the rest of Ryhope, it is a masterpiece.
(Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1988)