The death of a loved one is one of the most significant and perilous subjects for fiction – especially if the writer is trying to deal realistically with elements of grief, mourning, and psychological frailty (and perhaps recovery). It can be difficult to avoid easy platitudes and rote sentimentality. These hazards are amplified in writing for young readers, some of whom may be encountering the staggering possibility of death for the first time or, conversely, attempting to deal with their own loss via fiction.
In The Land of Yesterday, Winnipeg writer K.A. Reynolds (who now lives in Maine) uses dark fantasy to approach the subject matter somewhat askew, examining death and grief both realistically and metaphorically. In doing so, she creates a story that is at once imaginatively daring and emotionally harrowing.
Cecelia Dahl lives with her mother and father in a “crooked house” named Widdendream, a home that was once warm and supportive but – in the weeks since her younger brother’s death – has turned cold and unkind. Reynolds treats this change literally: the house has a spirit which, in grief, reacts much like its residents. And, like Cecelia herself, the house blames her for her brother’s death.
In Reynolds’s imagined world the souls of the dead go to the Land of Yesterday. When Cecelia’s mother disappears into that realm in search of her son, Cecelia and her father make plans to rescue her. Before they can act, however, the house forces Cecelia into a solitary quest, with her father’s survival and her very soul at stake.
The novel is beautiful and often surprising, rich with images (like a purportedly magical pen, loaded with tears; a small door opening in Cecelia’s midsection, revealing “a miniature rusted lamppost inside a tarnished Victorian birdcage”; and people turning to paper as their life energy drains away) that serve both as fantastic elements and metaphors for grief and loss.
The only criticism of The Land of Yesterday is that there is so much of it, all at once; the narrative doesn’t so much unfold as careen. While this makes for an immersive, fast-paced read, it doesn’t afford the reader time to really connect. Rather than living inside Cecelia’s head, we’re just along for the ride, taking in fantastic characters, worlds, and events without time to process and internalize them.