Book review: Magonia, Maria Dahvana Headley

I’ve been holding off on reviewing Maria Dahvana Headley’s Magonia primarily because I’ve been having difficulty deciding how I feel about it. That’s not necessarily an indicator that you should be put off, but I put that out there just as a statement — this book is kind of complicated, and it doesn’t necessarily digest well. Your mileage is definitely going to vary with this one, and there are lots of different ways to approach it. While I always like to couch my critical evaluations of media with the reminder that there are scores of ways to read something and they are all valid, that a variety of emotional reactions to a text are all entirely reasonable, I want to reinforce that here. What follows isn’t some kind of sweeping statement designed to be the be-all, end-all truth about Magonia; It’s just my thoughts.

Aza Ray Boyle has spent most of her short life struggling for air, undergoing treatment after treatment to find out why she can’t breathe even after surgeries, medication therapies, and every possible option. When she starts seeing ships in the sky, she thinks she’s hallucinating, but she anchors herself to her best friend, Jason. Their friendship is ruptured, though, when she’s abruptly transferred to the world in the sky — not a hallucination after all — and discovers that up there, she’s at her most comfortable, able to breathe freely for the first time in her life. She comes from this culture, Magonia, not from Earth, and she’ll be forced to make some challenging choices about her allegiances over the course of the text.

From a craft perspective, Magonia is highly lyrical, with a colourful, rich, layered style. At times it gets a bit overwrought, with the occasional metaphor thicket, but those will crop up now and then even in the most well-tended garden. It’s clear that the book is also banking a bit on the Fault in Our Stars phenomenon, angling for that tragic, frail girl doomed to leave this world too soon angle, but it translates it into a different setting, turning it into science fiction and building a world in which the lead character’s weakness becomes an asset.

Which is where the book starts to come into trouble and where I have such conflicting emotions about it. Aza on Earth is effectively disabled: Her severe lung impairment limits her quality of life, she needs a variety of accommodations, and she’s aware that due to complications from her illness, she’ll likely live a relatively short life. Yet, when she’s transported to the sky, she’s magically cured. Her disability becomes a nondisability — she goes from being a fish out of water, so to speak, to someone living in her element.

On the one hand, this is a kind of interesting view of impairments and the social attitudes that surround them. Aza challenges the medical model of disability by peeling back the notion of impairment=disability, in this case illustrating how disability is created by the built environment and the surrounding structures, not by impairment. On the other hand, though, this is also a straight case of magical disability cure, and may present a troubling precedent for readers who haven’t been exposed to disability politics. There’s also a hint of the supercrip about her — lo and behold, her ‘disability’ is actually a magical skill!

This makes me feel really conflicted, because she’s either a really fascinating breakdown and exploration of attitudes about disability, or she’s a character with a lot of problems, and I kind of waffle on which it is, honestly. It makes me curious to know how other disabled people feel about her and what their take is, especially in the case of people who have severe breathing impairments — my mid-level asthma isn’t really enough experience to draw upon when critiquing her depiction. Is she a revolutionary disabled character, or more of the same? Is it a positive sign that I’m even asking these questions at all?

There’s also the question of Jason, who has a somewhat nebulous mental health condition and/or cognitive impairment and is most certainly engaged in obsessive behaviours and thoughts. They’re a critical part of who he is and how he interacts with other people and the world, something that becomes acutely exaggerated when Aza leaves him behind and he spirals into a serious episode without her beside him. He feels at times almost cartoonish, a caricature, even though at other times he rings true to experience. His obsession with Pi plays a critical role in the narrative, and the scenes where he recites the number to as many digits as he can as a calming and focusing mechanism feel strongly familiar to me. At other times, though, there are his boy genius traits, and it’s difficult to tell if they’re again supercrippy (‘see, your impairment gives you magical powers!’) or actually separate from his disability, just part of who he is. Is he a genius who happens to be disabled, or a disabled genius? It’s an important distinction.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that left me thinking so much — I will give Magonia credit there, as I’ve been mulling it over for months now. Usually I just dislike a book and its depictions, think they’re mediocre, like them, or love them. Books don’t usually defy categorisation like this for me. The layers of ambiguity in the depictions are really interesting. I could read it again tomorrow and have a strong emotion about it, and I honestly can’t tell you which emotion I’d have. Ultimately, that feels like a sign of a good book — one that sparks reflection and conversation. I worry, though, that such reflection may be limited to disability-focused critics interested in exploring our representation, and that for many other readers, this may fly over their heads.