A young mother, trapped in a loveless marriage. An ex-radical, torn between his grown-up duties, and his political affiliations. An amoral, manipulative woman, restless for adventure. And a young, androgynous Goth, looking to belong somewhere. With its setting in eco-activist subculture, and the bucolic English suburbs, "The Crow Maiden" combines the elements of contemporary psychological fiction with dark fantasy in an utterly unique, haunting way. It's the kind of novel John Fowles might write, were he try to supernatural fiction.
The novel begins with Katherine, a new mother, leaving her husband and child for a walk in the woods. While there, she meets the enigmatic woman, named Crow. Crow offers her tea, and Katherine disappears for a day. When she returns, she is scratched, confused, and has lost her memory of the missing hours. Her lover Paul, meanwhile, tries to make sense of a disquieting encounter of his own. All of this happens against the vivid backdrop of a group of eco-friendly tree-dwellers attempting to stop the building of road through a natural historic site. The inner turmoil and the tensions as the confrontation between the activists and the corporation are palpable. The intrusion into nature has evoked the inscrutable curiosity other, ancient forces.
Singleton weaves a dense, skillful narrative, with strands of her unpredictable (and real) characters interior landscapes and the cipher-like surreal creatures at the edge of sight. Singleton's "faeryland" is an uncomfortable, id-ridden place, full of beauty, cruelty and sexuality. It's more reminiscent of sheila-na-gigs, their crude, potent sexes splayed wide than butterfly-winged damsels. Her characters are complex; her portraiture at times a little too intimate. (Hot-and-cold Elaine is a triumph of creation; at times I wanted to slap her).
The prose is rich and luminous, filled with scent, sound and atmosphere. The landscapes that Singleton describes, both real and imaginary, are characters in their own rite. The prose is so lovely that it becomes overwhelming at times. Her sentences are marvels of grammar, rhythm and energy that take on a life of their own. They are the engines that propel the story to its final denouement.
Like Wharton, Shirley Jackson or Jonathan Carroll, Singleton uses the textures of fantastic and mythic fiction to illuminate human truths and emotions. It's an impressive debut. The heavy air of melancholy is hard to shake, when the last page is turned.