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Far Far Away | Class #4, 2016

far far awayFolk and fairy tales have long been fodder for writers, who re-tell, borrow, fracture, and invert the original stories in their own. I would suggest that Tom McNeal bends the relationship between fairy tale and novel in a new way in his suspenseful tale Far Far Away. What do others think about blending of new and old? What does the novel suggest about the power of story? About the role of folklore in both literature and our psyche?  What else strikes you about this story that is wholly original yet draws deeply on common lore?

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. Ilana Habib says:

    Far Far Away felt both new and old at the same time. It is modern paranormal-romance YA, a modern interpretation of Hansel and Gretel, an ode to the Grimm brothers, and a fantasy novel all at the same time. I never felt that it was stretching to be too many things at once, though. McNeal’s varied use of language throughout manages to blend the voices of Jacob and Jeremy, old and new English, in a way that feels natural and easy. I was delighted by the vocabulary in the text, as well as the interweaving of other languages and historical/cultural details. I think it does a great job of touching on the cultural importance of folklore and how it shapes the values and desires of the society it comes from. Jeremy’s deep involvement with fairy tales has led him to have a strong moral compass, even if he doesn’t always follow its direction. As the novel develops, so too does Jeremy’s ability to act on what he knows is right – such as the transition from breaking in to the baker’s house to his unwillingness to “cheat” at the game show upon further thought.

  2. Natalie Nihill says:

    I had a hard time at the beginning of the novel investing in the protagonist’s story because I felt like the voice of the narrator felt so removed and almost clinically observational, compounded by an anachronistic style of language. But, as the action developed, McNeal revealed that through the Grimm ghost narrator, the reader could travel through the realms of Jeremy’s inner and outer monologue, and not be caged (intentional pun) to the action of Jeremy’s physical reality. The narrator also provided a tension between the structure of the plot as a meta-reference to the fairytale genre.
    McNeal, clearly inspired by the magical realism of authors like Garcia Marquez, does not however, venture far into the “magical” world, strictly delineating the world between the ghostly wanderers and mortals. Perhaps, the reason this novel works is because, like Cashore suggests, the boundaries are strictly delineated between the “ghost world” and those who can hear the ghosts. I particularly like the distinction made between a clairvoyant and clairaudient. While I think this novel could have played with a less linear narrative/time continuum, I wonder if this would make it less accessible to YA readers?

  3. Carla Cevallos says:

    During my teenage years, I know that at some point I heard that many of the all-time classic fairytales that I had listened to/watched when I was little were written by the Grimm brothers, but that most of their original versions were not even remotely as sweet and happy as the versions that we learned as children. However, I have to say that I never had the curiosity to go back and read an original tale by the Grimm brothers to corroborate if this supposed darkness was indeed there. Far, Far Away presents an opportunity to introduce teenagers to the world of fairytales. While many elements of a typical fairytale are present, the characterization of the protagonists allows for teenagers to feel reflected and identified in a kind of story that (I’m almost certain) many of them would consider that would not be of their interest, especially because of their age.

    My own experience with the reading was enjoyable in general, though at certain points I felt that the story was moving slowly or that it was too long. Perhaps this was just a result of my resistance to reading about horrible, hopeless events in what was supposed to be a fairy tale. What I did enjoy a lot at all points was the role of the narrator and the way that the author made the most out of having a very old narrator (with a lot of life… and death… experience) to explore and reflect on very deep aspects of human nature and feelings, in such a way that as a reader I experienced some very deep and touching moments despite the fact that the story was outright and simple. Even as an adult, I enjoyed thinking about some of the stories ‘lessons’ or messages. For instance, I really loved a recurrent idea (actually tied to the very title and theme of the novel) introduced by Ginger: “My grandfather says there’s no point in traveling. He says all that happens when you go far, far away is that you discover you’ve brought yourself along” (p. 29).

  4. Hannah Flint says:

    Carla’s observation that Far, Far Away presents an opportunity to introduce teenagers to the world of fairy tales struck me as particularly poignant, but I might argue that it is instead an opportunity to reintroduce teenagers to fairly tales, and to give them the opportunity to engage with them in new and more sophisticated ways. Fairy tales often present characters in black and white, as good or bad, moral or immoral, but McNeal presents Jacob and Jeremy as complex and uneasy figures, and in doing so asks the reader to think more deeply about the characters we encounter in classic tales. In reading, I found myself recalling bits and pieces from tales I read as a child. I also found myself trying to puzzle out where McNeal was pulling from, and by doing so, where he might be going. In this way I engaged with the text on multiple levels.

  5. Karen Tlili says:

    I had a similar experience to Hannah as I was reading this book. I was able to engage with the text on many levels. In addition to following the story happening with Jeremy and Ginger, I was trying to find links and allusions to fairy tales. I was constantly looking for clues or hints that would lead to the direction the story was taking. I thought it was funny how the characters would allude to fairy tales at times as well, making the whole thing very tongue in cheek. They were aware of fairy tales, but not aware that they were involved in an elaborate tale themselves. I found this to be more powerful than some of the other adaptations in writing or on screen that have become popular today.
    I found the part where Jacob begins to see how the line between real life and fairy tales is being blurred to be especially powerful. He knows that tales are twisted and horrific,” yet in the end, justice is meted out, and bodies are reassembled and restored to life” (McNeal, 252). But in this instance, justice is not being served and innocence is not being honored. Even worse, the small space between real life and the tale could no longer be distinguished. I found this to be an incredibly powerful point. In some ways, real life is more terrifying than these tales, because certain rules and obligations, are not guaranteed.

  6. Alex Sucheck says:

    The author has an original idea, to use the voice of one of the deceased Grimm brothers to tell a modern tale with ancient flavor. The Grimm brothers are a staple of Western folklore tales, and the author reflects his own personal fascination (and influence) in his language throughout the book. I think introducing certain German words, with their very peculiar, specific meaning, adds to the Black Forest-like feel of the tale. I do agree with part of Natalie’s point, however, that the otherworldly voice of the narrator affects our perspective on Jeremy and does not always allow the reader the freedom to watch the story without feeling like someone is behind them–but maybe this was precisely McNeal’s intended effect! I could feel the weight of the elderly, dead narrator often.

    I enjoyed the recurring descriptions of feelings of solitude, entrapment, frustration, and suspended reality throughout the book–both Jeremy’s and Jacob’s–paired with the awkwardness of teenage experience on the one hand, and the monologue/dialogue of the dead on the other. As Carla mentioned, this book might be both a great way to (re-)introduce fairy tales to teenagers, and, as Hannah says, perhaps to re-ignite an interest in fairy tales with a more adolescent interpretation. I was particularly captivated by the description of the Zwischenraum, the space between, and happy to learn this new word, which I am going to use! The metaphysical wonderings I had while reading this book, as an adult, is what I appreciated most.

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