I have found this a difficult book to review, because once I started reading it I realised that it isn’t really a fantasy; in fact Ryman himself in his afterword (which some reviewers have seen as a part of the novel itself) says that he is “a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism”, in as much as some of the events which make up his story didn’t really happen, or might have happened in a world that is slightly different to our own.

Was tells the story of three people, all of whom have an involvement with The Wizard of Oz. Jonathan is an actor dying of AIDS who was due to play the Scarecrow in a stage adaptation of Oz when he discovered how ill he was, and whose childhood in Canada was affected deeply by seeing the first TV broadcast of the Oz film. Frances Gumm is a child singer who will grow up to become Judy Garland with all that entails. Dorothy Gael is an orphan who goes to live with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas in 1875, where she leads a harsh life including being abused by someone close to her, and has an encounter with a young teacher called Frank Baum which provides some of the inspiration for his children’s story.

The structure of the novel is very similar to that of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, but very different in tone and more unbalanced. What I mean by that is that the novel is really about Dorothy, and Jonathan’s search for her at the end of his life, and there really isn’t that much about Frances. The blurb on my copy describes this as “an epic fable of lost innocence” and I that feels right to me.

As I said at the beginning, whether this is really a fantasy novel in the traditional sense I’m not sure, but I found it very powerful; I became totally gripped about a third of the way through and wanted to know how things were going to turn out. The bleakness of Dorothy’s life in particular will be difficult for some to read, but I’m glad that I had the experience.

This is my second read for the Once Upon a Time II challenge.

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