Book Review: The Lairdbalor by Kathleen Kaufman

The Lairdbalor is a mythic, disturbing tale, full of folklore and nightmares, and with it Kathleen Kaufman has proved herself as an author to watch.”

 

Author Kathleen Kaufman gives readers a horrific fantasy, journeying into childhood nightmares and anxieties, in her latest release, The Lairdbalor. Seven-year-old Jamie falls down a hill in Southern California and ends up in a dark, dark forest with no way to return to his parents, or even to get back up the hill. When he tries, he’s given the enigmatic directions, “No way out if you go up. You have to go through.” He learns this from Bilbo, his stuffed plush rat, who is now, somehow, alive and talking.

And then things really start to get weird.

Kaufman’s imagination shines in this novel, taking readers on a dark, twisted journey through an unknown (and unknowable) landscape that is closer to Alice’s Wonderland than Dorothy’s Oz, but filled with unique monsters and unreliable creatures that guide Jamie through (instead of up) a darkening, disheartening landscape. Jamie is a basket case of fears and nervous energy, but the poor kid can’t even rest–every time he falls asleep in this world, he wakes up older. Any decision, however small, only digs him deeper into this nightmare, and his seeming guides are all truly bizarre, in the best possible way. The most interesting, though, is Jamie’s boogeyman, come to life: the Lairdbalor himself.

All nightmares are real in this world, and there are serious dark subjects being explored. Luckily, Kaufman’s prose seems to soar when things become their absolute worst. Channeling Maurice Sendak and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, with a high-test dose of David Lynch, The Lairdbalor tears through the Hero’s Journey model in favor of a surreal spiraling metaphor for depression and anxiety, and how no matter how badly Jamie just wants to return home to his parents, and just wants out of this dark world, things only worse and worse.

Kaufman’s a great writer, engaging and sharp, but there are a few snags in The Lairdbalor, most notably being the use of italicized Gaelic words that sometimes distract more than add to the story. While strange names and languages are commonplace in books of fantasy, they usually rely upon at least the possibility of a reader being able to sound them out phonetically, but Gaelic is no joke, and isn’t at all forgiving to the uninitiated reader. Still, it’s an easy enough thing to overlook in a book of interesting monsters and harrowing situations.

Kathleen Kaufman’s The Lairdbalor has teeth, and it bites. It’s a wild thing, doing as wild things do. On the surface, it’s a dark, horrifying fantasy. Deeper, though, beneath the skin, it’s a tragic commentary on unchecked mental imbalance, and on the power anxiety has over us all. The Lairdbalor is a mythic, disturbing tale, full of folklore and nightmares, and with it Kathleen Kaufman has proved herself as an author to watch.

JAKE MARLEY

Publisher: Turner
Paperback (288 pp)
Release Date: 10 October 2017

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