When asked if Rainey Royal is a novel or a series of short stories, author Dylan Landis smiled slyly and said, “It’s a novel…told in stories.” I had the honor of meeting Dylan – and of discussing her book with her and 30 other readers – when I recently attended Booktopia. I thoroughly enjoyed both listening to the audio book of Rainey Royal and having a chance to meet the author.
Rainey is a fourteen-year old girl living in Greenwich Village with her father in the 1970’s when the novel opens. Their 5-story townhouse is a bit more crowded than that, though. Rainey lives with her father, Howard, who is a renowned jazz musician; his best friend, Gordy; and an ever-changing parade of young musical acolytes who are thrilled to play (and play) with the great Howard Royal. It’s not exactly a healthy environment for a young girl, and Howard is not much of a father. To make matters worse, Gordy makes her feel uncomfortable by tucking her in at night and always being just a little too close. It is all together a creepy and disturbing situation.
Rainey seeks comfort – and some semblance of a family – outside of the house. Her mother left, but she visits her grandmother, Lala, (who owns the townhouse) in an old folks’ home, tries to connect with her mother’s sister, and most of all, leans on her best friend, Tina. At school, Rainey and Tina are bullies and sport a tough outer shell, but at least they have each other. Rainey’s other comfort is her art, and she strives to feed her creative tendencies, even while other destructive forces within her often lead to dangerous behavior.
As the author explained at Booktopia, Rainey’s story is told in a series of fourteen interconnected stories that together make up the narrative of Rainey’s life, following her from adolescence into young adulthood. That narrative is powerful, moving, and often disturbing, but you keep rooting for Rainey. Her circumstances are so dysfunctional that she is often led to act in rebellious – even criminal – ways, but you can also see the hurt child underneath all that bravado. As I was listening to the audio book – beautifully read by Jorjeana Marie – I alternated between wanting to shake Rainey and wanting to protect her.
Dylan perfectly captures the experience of being an adolescent girl. Even though I grew up in a normal, loving family very unlike Rainey’s, I recognized and related to some of her struggles to fit in and find her place in the world. Young girls often feel powerless, which is certainly true for Rainey at home, yet they are beginning to discover that they yield some unexpected power through their sexuality, bodies, and confidence (even when it is a false front), as when Rainey gets in trouble at school for making the male teachers feel uncomfortable just by the way she looks at them. This is a coming-of-age story that feels both foreign and familiar at the same time.
I have never read a novel quite like this before. Of course, its structure is unique, telling Rainey’s story in a series of interrelated narratives, but its uniqueness goes further. Dylan pulls you deep into Rainey’s life, with achingly beautiful prose, making you care about her and wanting to save her. This is one of those pieces of fiction that wraps itself around you and brings you wholly into its world. Dylan said she wrote this novel because she’d previously written a short story with Rainey as a supporting character, and she just couldn’t get her out of her mind. I understand completely because that’s just the way I felt listening to Rainey Royal.
|Dylan Landis at Booktopia|