Juushika's Reviews > The Necessary Beggar

The Necessary Beggar by Susan Palwick
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's review
Feb 15, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: status-borrowed
Read in June, 2009

When one son is accused of murder, his entire family is exiled from their glorious city of Lémabantuk, sent to a new world—where they find themselves in the Nevada desert. A story of two cultures and faiths blending, The Necessary Beggar is unexpected magical realism, combining gritty but irreverent daily life with glimpses of sentimental magic. The novel has a number of faults, including out of place scifi elements and uneven pacing; nonetheless, it has thoughtful and intelligent (if overwrought) themes, and its combination of mundanity and unexpected magic make it a joy to read. Moderately recommended.

Perhaps unexpectedly, The Necessary Beggar is more magical realism than it is science fiction. It may begin with a blue doorway bridging parallel universes, but its heart is the personal, spiritual, unexpectedly magical aspects of magical realism. It's the story of two faiths blending when one is forced into the heart of the other—and the faiths come alive via magical objects and meaningful dreams. It is also the story of two cultures blending, and so this magic occurs within the gritty and often irreverent framework of an immigrant family stranded on American soil. Unfortunately, the science fiction aspects feel out of place and underexplored in this magical realist setting. In both Lémabantuk and Nevada, religion is faith-based—and so it's a surprise (and magical) when it's evidenced in small and unexpected ways. Blue portals between worlds just don't mesh, and there's never enough science or explanation to categorize the portals as some sort of non-magical technology which doesn't interfere with the progression from faith to small miracles.

That complaint aside, magical realism serves The Necessary Beggar quite well—but still the book is not perfect. The story takes place over many years, and is told from three points of view; as such, the pacing varies widely: sometimes redundant, sometimes skipping years at a time, ending in a hurried conclusion. The pacing, compounded by an irreverent tone, does characterization few favors: characters are excessively dimensioned, full of secret histories and false faces without enough consistent detail to make them believable. Yet for all these faults, The Necessary Beggar is an unexpected pleasure. Perhaps because I was expecting science fiction and instead discovered a cousin to Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, I found this book delightful: faulted, yes, but also thoughtful and intelligent, with overwrought but meaningful themes; quietly spiritual and perfectly balanced on the blurry line between mundane and magical, making it a joy to read. It's not a book I plan to come back to, nor my favorite by Palwick, but it's a quick and thoughtful read and on that basis I recommend it.

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