I’m a big fan of retellings, and I loved E. K. Johnston’s debut duology, so I was pretty excited when she published a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, in which her protagonist conspires to wed the murderous king Lo-Melkhiin in order to save her sister from that fate.
Despite what the cover might suggest, this isn’t a romance. It’s the story of a young woman finding power in a heavily patriarchal society. The unnamed narrator has few interactions with Lo-Melkhiin – fewer than she has with his mother, the only person convinced there’s still good inside him – and they’re unilaterally acrimonious, until the end of the novel, which brings the possibility of a union of mutual respect and companionship, but hints at nothing more. She does not seek to save the good man trapped inside his own body for his sake, or because she loves him, but for her own sake, for the sake of all the girls he might marry when she dies, and for the sake of all the families whose safety relies on the stability offered by a king rather than an empty throne being fought over by powerful men.
Indeed, it is the lives of women that form the core of the novel, with the narrator finding her power through the arts and crafts relegated to women. Moreover, the relationships between women are the most significant; the narrator barely knows her husband, but bonds with her mother-in-law and the woman who does her henna. The most important relationship, however, is the one that drives the story from the start: that of the protagonist and her sister. It is her love for her sister that drives her to wed Lo-Melkhiin, and her sister’s love for her that gives her the ability to survive in Lo-Melkhiin’s qasr.
Because the protagonist’s relationship with her sister is the driving force behind the novel’s inciting incident, it’s important that we as the audience understand their relationship with one another. Of course, the mere fact that they are sisters is enough for any reader with siblings to understand the depth of their bond in a general sense, but it is also important to see the details of their unique relationship.
Johnston does this through a series of flashbacks, which are the sort of thing I usually skim over, but I find work well in this book. Part of this is because of the nature of the narrative. The protagonist is a contemplative young woman, who tells her story in an almost mythical manner, with slow pacing and a lyrical voice:
No single tale that I could draw from would save my sister from a short and cruel marriage, but I had pieces aplenty. I held them in my hands like so many grains of sand, and they slipped away from me, running through my fingers, even as I tried to gather more. But I knew sand. I had been born to it and I learned to walk on it. It had blown in my face and I had picked it from my food. I knew that I had only to hold it for long enough, to find the right fire, and the sand would harden into glass – into something I could use. – pp.8-9
As a result, the flashbacks don’t feel like an antagonistic force working against the forward momentum, because there is little forward momentum to begin with. Instead, they are an opportunity to learn more about the narrator as a character and to see her relationship with her sister.
Another reason the flashbacks work in this story is that they’re part of the protagonist’s ‘filter’, as a first-person narrator. She tells the reader stories about her childhood, and through them the reader understands her interpretations of current events. For instance, she hears a water fountain her first night in the qasr, but although she recognises the sound she cannot place it till later; she grew up in the desert, where water is scarce and rain, when it comes, can be fierce and deadly. By reading the story of the narrator’s first experience of rain, we understand better her reaction to the presence of the water fountain in the garden.
Indeed, Johnston’s skill at filtering events through her narrators’ perception is one of my favourite things about her work. In The Story of Owen and Prairie Fire, Siobhan associated people and events with musical instruments and phrases, while in A Thousand Nights the narrator interprets everything through the lens of a child who grew up in a tent in the desert.
A Thousand Nights is a rich, evocative tale that blends magic with history and myth for a truly unforgettable story about love and sacrifice.
Nicola loves retellings, especially when they feature magic and compelling heroines.