Journey to an Unknown Region
Robert Holdstock's partially autonomous sequel to the fantasy novel Mythago Wood, Lavondyss is the story of Tallis Keeton, a young girl who lives in the English countryside near Shadox woods. From when she is very young, Tallis is attended or haunted both by the presence of her grandfather, who was an investigator into the psychic phenomena of the deep forest near where she lives, and by spirits which are visible only to her, or, if seen by others, only understood by her for what they truly are.

Tallis begins to become very withdrawn as she approches puberty, and spends a lot of time exploring the countryside near her house, naming the fields and trees and streams, and compulsively carving masks which allow her to see hidden aspects of the land. She sees visions occasionally of a different realm, where it is always winter, and she sees a wounded man lying on a battlefield who reminds her of her brother who has been missing in action for many years.

What prevents Lavondyss from remaining a simple, conventional fantasy narrative, about a young girl or boy who crosses from the everyday into the fantastic, is the force with which the writing projects us into Tallis Keeton's mind. We vividly feel her confusion - she knows what is supposed to be real and what is not, and yet she is unable to prevent her visions or ignore the shamanic compulsions which drive her to tell weird stories and perform rituals of protection on the land around her. She discovers, in a hut on the outskirts of Shadox wood, a journal kept by her grandfather and his fellow researcher, and this deepens our sense of confusion.

Her grandfather was reseraching the effects of certain tracts of deep, ancient woodland on primitive structures of the human psyche which he called 'mythogenetic'. Drawing on Jung's theory of the archetypes of the collective unconscious, the narrative touches on ideas which Tallis doesn't fully understand, concerning the activation of archetypal or 'mythic' energies in the brain, and the effect this has on reality, of opening 'windows' to another world.

He has come to believe that the mythogenetic effect works not only to create the untouchable, mysterious figure of lore and legend, the hero figure, it also creates the forbidden places of the mythic past...WJ has glimpsed these realms he calls geistzones, archetypal landscapes generated by the primordial energies of the inherited unconscious, lost in the lower brain.

The depth which this semi-scientific framework lends to the book is that it creates an ambiguity for the reader - is Tallis's experience real, or a hallucination? It is very clear, once Tallis crosses over into the 'other' world, that she is in the grip of stories which comprise very deep parts of her brain - stories from the collective unconscious. However, it is not clear whether she is truly, physically journeying through other 'realms', or if her experiences are to be understood as the results of fever and insanity.

Here is the point, and the reason for this book being exceptional, and worth reading: This ambiguity, far from creating anxiety, actually frees the reader from trying to nail down the linear 'plot' of the book. The same technique is used by Stephen Donaldson in The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, but to better effect here. Free from the natural urge of the mind to make 'sense' and establish firmly what is really happening, the reader is simply carried along, like Tallis, by the stories, feeling like a shaman, one who takes on different eyes and a different skin and journeys far away through an unknown realm.

In fact, for anyone with a familiarity with Carlos Castaneda, or Carl Jung, it is possible to see Lavondyss as an actual shamanic manual - the techniques with which Tallis Keeton trains herself to master her visions and journey to the other world are recognizable as techniques which shamans use for their visions and journeys. They can also be interpreted, from a Jungian perspective as a strange kind of self-psychotherapy: a young girl, unable to deal with the loss of her brother, heals her own psyche at a pre-rational level, by interacting with the archetypal forces underlying her emotions and her thought. Jung used all kinds of unusual techniques in his therapy, and would have thoroughly approved.

All of the analysis aside, this is a classic, beautifully written, and haunting book which creeped me out for a long time when I was younger, and gave me a lot of food for thought when I was older. Highly recommended.