Reviewed by Emma Burridge
In this loose re-telling of the titular story, One Thousand and One Nights, E.K. Johnston’s A Thousand Nights weaves magical realism and myth against a scorching desert background meaning that readers are never quite sure what is real and what is not.
This retelling introduces Lo-Melkhiin, a king feared across the desert villages for his rule predicated entirely upon fear – the fear that he will choose one’s daughter, or sister, to be his next wife. To make matters worse, the story dictates that, whether it takes one night or five nights, he will inevitably kill the girl, and then venture out from his qasr to seek his next bride. The narrator of this tale is one such girl who refuses to be cowed, sacrificing herself in her sister’s place and becoming the king’s bride in the opening pages of the novel. Lo-Melkhiin’s people say there is a darkness in their king, they say that he went into the desert and returned changed by a demon, they say this girl will not live to see sunrise – yet, miraculously, she does, and as the chapters progress it becomes increasingly obvious that it is the stories that she spins for the king each night which will save her.
A Thousand Nights undoubtedly draws its tone from the oral storytelling tradition, an art which seems in conflict with our modern conception of stories as existing predominantly on the page. But, as Lo-Melkhiin’s bride proves, stories can be woven from, and into, many forms, and events can be made to happen through the power of thinking or dreaming them into existence. The storyteller is creator – and what a breath of fresh air it is to find that the character who truly holds the power in this novel is not the feared Lo-Melkhiin but the female protagonist, the girl who ought to be living in fear of her murderous husband.
The oral tradition, however, is a double-edged sword. For me, there are a few jarring instances of the first person narrator, and therefor the author herself, flouting the rule of ‘showing, not telling’, something which many writers would consider a cardinal sin. However, by the end of her story, Johnston leaves her readers to decide just what it is she is actually telling them with her tale of the village girl who seemingly triumphs over the demonic lord.
Although I might have found the pacing to be a bit slow, the persistent ambiguity and layers of meaning in A Thousand Nights mean that the experience of reading this novel is completely invested in subjective interpretation. It might frustrate some, it might delight others, and I sat somewhere on the fence. One thing for certain is that E.K. Johnston has gone some distance in proving her claim that words, language, and storytelling more generally holds great power, and when used correctly, a great authority, too.