These Thin Lines - Milena McKay
Within minutes of finishing ‘These Thin Lines’, I sent a message to Milena beginning with ‘WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?’ I know she blinked in pre-caffeinated concern but I was compelled to capitalise because with ‘These Thin Lines’ Milena has done what Milena always does with her novels; soaked her words in elegance and precision so we drown in the story’s fragile strength.
In the first few sentences of ‘These Thin Lines’, Milena proposes that we accept the fairytale of Cinderella as our reading GPS. Vi’s shoe, flung from her foot by the force of her stumble through the door of Lilien Haus of Fashion in Paris. The door which is opened by Chiara Conti who smiles at the puppy-like tangle of limbs. The door opened by Vi’s clumsiness. The door which opens hearts so we embark on a journey that incorporates generous servings of the Cinderella motif and a soupçon of others. Longing, lovelessness, ivory towers, and lines. Such thin lines.
Thin lines are particularly difficult to navigate. Bold lines? They are large, and safe. But thin lines require tentative movements, where you hold your breath, where you tingle with a sense of foreboding at the audacity of your step. Milena gives us the tentative audacity of Vi and Chiara. She gives us characters manipulating events where we hold our breaths as each revelation makes the story shiver, makes the lines wobble. She gives us lines.
Lines such as those which encircle Chiara, hiding in her attic of dreams and designs, in a marriage that binds her love to one who has crossed too many lines. Lines such as those tugging on Vi’s heart as she reaches across to grasp unattainable love.
“For as long as she could remember, she never could quite inhale with her whole chest around her father. She loved him, she wanted to please him and make him proud. He was all Vi ever had, and his approval was everything she ever dreamed about…and she was permanently looking for scraps from his table.”
The Cinderella motif navigates the tightrope of Milena’s story. In the fairytale, Cinderella, born into high society, is reduced to a state of degradation, and is forced to occupy a servile position. Milena gives us Vi, the new intern at Lilien Haus of Fashion. The gopher. The lackey. But we know, don’t we, that Cinderella emerges on certain festive occasions as a temporarily brilliant being, always returning to her obscure position, until at last she is recognised; after which she remains permanently brilliant, her period of eclipse having been brought to a close by her recognition, accomplished by the aid of her lost shoe or slipper. We know this because we know the fairytale.
Milena threads new interpretations into her story, like those threads in the clothes at Lilien Haus. Like Chiara who occupies a metaphorical servile position, designing the fashion lines in her attic, while others step into the glory that her work receives. Chiara also emerges on certain occasions, then retreats, but her light, her truth, appears, and ultimately she remains permanently brilliant, her period of eclipse brought to a close by her truth.
Accomplished by the aid of a lost shoe.
Over hundreds of years, the story of Cinderella has transformed from a dark tale of an independent woman seeking vengeance into the technicolour Disney version featuring the coy, helpless, feather-brained girl.
With her inimitable style, Milena plucks the best of these tales, the point of these tales, and entwines the past and present Cinderellas, to ensure that Vi is resourceful. That Vi has initiative. That Vi understands her ignorance. That Vi eventually forgives those crossing her lines. But Milena also ensures that Vi is to be rescued. That Vi is idealistic. That Vi is naive. That Vi is helpless. That Vi deserves everything. That Vi is paralysed by all those thin lines. That Vi hopes for love, and awaits her rescue because to do otherwise would mean that she is reduced to ash.
Milena’s characters poke fun at fairytales, through pointed, occasionally snarky, dialogue, often remarking on how similar their behaviour is to the characters in Cinderella.
“…As for all the fairytale bullshit…” Aoife gave her a direct look. It was remarkably steady. “Just remember that your princess is married. For better or for worse—”
It is a clever tool; one which adds layers to the story. Here is a fairytale; isn’t it cute? Here is a fairytale; look at these characters. Here is a fairytale; an allegorical homage.
Milena pays particular attention, as she does, to the language she uses, ensuring that while it is modernised, and current, it also has the feel of being slightly removed from the reader. We look on as the story of Vi and Chiara is revealed in the language of the haute bourgeoisie. Precise and measured. Laden with gossip. We are immersed in the story, yet watch from the stalls as the events gain momentum.
I must mention one particular element of the story. It’s a single word, but it’s so very Milena McKay. Chiara, for reasons I won’t divulge, creates a new fashion house and names it Chiaroscuro. I’m surprised Milena didn’t hear my gasp from eleventy billion miles away. I should have capitalised it. Outside of the novel, Chiaroscuro is an art movement which involves the combined use of light and shadow. However, the meeting point of these two values usually gives rise to sharp lines or contours. When you read it, you’ll notice that ’These Thin Lines’ is separated into two halves; ‘Candle’ (Vi’s story) and ‘Shadow’ (Chiara’s)
I know, absolutely, that Milena needed us to realise that Vi’s candle burns so brightly that shadows are exposed and illuminated to reveal their secrets. Like Chiara’s secret. But candle light is fragile. One breath and all is lost. Then the shadows creep forward. Act Two.
“Chiara deliberately shied away from the spotlight, keeping herself in the shadows, creating a sense of mystery about Chiaroscuro.”
Here’s another piece of awesomeness. Chiara is speaking about Vi’s eyes; the depth, the experience, the shadow without the light.
“And there it was again, that silent something in those ash depths, something that hadn’t been there five years ago, when Chiara had known every shade, every shadow in them. But it had been here, hanging between them every second since Vi had stepped into Chiaroscuro, like a foreshadowing of things to come.”
‘These Thin Lines’ is a careful, delicate tribute to a fairytale, complete with a fairy Godmother, and a ball, and an unpleasant stepmother. We want Vi to have it all. We want Chiara to find it all. We want open spaces for them on the other side of those lines. We want.
The other morning, I shouted at Milena, “WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS?” The question then led the parade of compliments and exclamations that filled her screen.
I was actually asking Milena why she writes like this. The answer is because she can.