Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

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Since her death in January I have been planning to read/reread something by Le Guin as a kind of personal way to honour her passing, and when the opportunity presented itself last week Gifts was the first book on the book mountain to catch my eye. It was a random book grab, but I really couldn’t have picked a more appropriate book. Gifts is, among other things, about the discovery and the power of stories, and it made me feel that despite the loss of Le Guin in body, she has left the world a phenomenal gift in the form of her writings. Something that is both sad and comforting at the same time.

She writes in Gifts about the Uplands of the Western Shore, a barren, mountainous place peopled by small, proud and impoverished clans who eke out a living rearing sheep and cattle and fighting each other for every inch of land and every animal on it. Each clan has a hereditary magical ‘gift’ passed down either through the male or the female line. Some are useful gifts like the ability to create fire, move incredibly heavy things, or communicate with animals. Other gifts are more sinister: the ability to take over someone’s will, wipe a person’s mind of all memory and selfhood, twist a person’s body out of its true shape. And Orrec, the teller of the tale, is heir to one of the best and worst gifts of them all: the gift of Undoing – if the gift runs true in him he will be able to kill with a glance and a word, as his father can. With the threat and fear of these gifts, the use and abuse of them, the clans live and work alongside each other, often testing each other’s strength, sometimes at an impasse, all the while working to ensure that the next generation will carry the gift on through strategic marriages and careful alliances. It’s a harsh environment in which to grow up, even harsher for those who grow up different as both Orrec and his best friend Gry do.

Gry is heir to her mother’s gift of Calling, which shows itself early and runs true. She’s quiet and clever and stubborn, a thinker who cares deeply about both her animal and human friends. She is the calm anchor for Orrec (and for the reader) throughout the story. While Orrec struggles with his gift, with both the expectations laid on him by his father and the obligations he is to assume for his father’s domain, Gry is there for him. When he enters his enforced blindness, believing that his gift is ‘wild’ and uncontrollable, Gry chooses and trains Coaly to be his guide dog. And when he loses his mother and then learns of what his father did to him and finds that he has no place in the structure of Uplands society, Gry is still there for him, and goes with him into the outer world. Because while he has been struggling with his gift, she too has been struggling quietly with the expectations laid on her by her own. Those who can Call animals must Call them for the hunt to feed the clans, but Gry feels that this would be a betrayal of the trust she has with the animals she communicates with and refuses. She, like Orrec, is too different to fit into this limited, back-biting society.

Something I really loved about Gifts was the lack of black and white. There are good people and bad people in this story, but no-one is wholly one or the other. Or if they are – because it’s difficult to find anything nice to say about Brantor Ogge – the reader is still invited to understand why, (Ogge, like many bullies, lives in fear). Orrec’s father does something really quite dreadful, but he does it to protect his domain and the people that live on his lands. Orrec’s relationship with his father is complex and believable. As a boy he looks up to Canoc as a hero-figure, and his first story about his father and how he met and married Melle, Orrec’s mother, is like a fairy-tale. But as a teenager Orrec butts heads with his father, feels betrayed by him, and, when Melle dies, is all but abandoned by him as they both grieve separately. Gry’s relationship with her mother is virtually non-existent as her mother roams from place to place and rarely comes home to her husband and child. Much of the interest in this book comes from the morality Gry and Orrec perceive versus that generally accepted by their family and friends – Orrec cannot reconcile himself to being able to destroy life at a whim, which his father doesn’t seem to understand at all, and Gry can’t accept that it is right to establish a trust with an animal so that it will come willingly to its death, something her mother really doesn’t get. Neither of them accept the way things are, and both see that in order to live and grow they have to leave the Uplands.

The other stand-out theme in Gifts is that of stories and their power. The story of Orrec and Gry’s childhood is nested inside the story of the visitor, Emmon, and how he proves a catalyst for their decision to leave. The stories of Orrec’s grandfather and father are likewise nested inside this coming of age story. The stories about the clans and their gifts are used as much as the gifts themselves to warn enemies off and Canoc’s story about Orrec is powerful enough to keep his family and his people safe, but it is a story with a lie at the heart of it, and eventually it destroys everything it should have protected. Melle’s stories on the other hand, the ones she tells Orrec and Gry as children and writes down in a book for Orrec, is a way of remembering her own childhood and upbringing in the Lowlands. That book of stories leads on to Melle writing more stories for Orrec while she is sick and dying, and these writings prove a way for him to both grieve and remember his mother when she is gone. They also help him to heal. And Emmon gives Orrec and Gry a printed book (aptly called Transformations) which prompts Orrec’s decision to finally un-blindfold himself and, more indirectly, his and Gry’s decision to write their own story instead of keeping to the script laid out for them by their parents and society.

Gifts is a beautiful, elegantly written book. It is simply told, but it explores complex ideas about power and families and stories. Orrec and Gry are refreshing characters in a sea of teenage love-triangles and their small rebellion against expectation and obligation feels far worthier and more interesting than a lot of the usual unite-against-the-end-of-the-world stuff that gets trotted out under the YA banner. I really loved this book. It felt like a good way to remember and appreciate Le Guin and it’s made me want to read more of her work. And since I have the second book in the trilogy, Voices, ready and waiting to be read, I reckon I’ll start there.

 

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