The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block
Review by Diane Wilkes

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

"How does Tarot work," people ask, and I usually mutter something about Jung and synchronicity. I see no use in trying to convince people of something I never thought of doubting. Yet in other areas of my life, I am still occasionally taken aback when synchronicity occurs. Several years ago, I was applying for a job and the organization sent me a copy of their literacy magazine. I read it from cover to cover primarily because I was interested in the subject, as opposed to the potential job.

Imagine my delighted surprise as a tarot- and bibliophile (okay, okay--bibliomaniac) to read a review of a Young Adult novel where "the use of the various cards in the tarot deck to introduce each chapter and many of the main characters is a fascinating device." The book? The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block, an author famed for her particular and peculiar brand of gritty surrealism.

I bought the slim, handsome volume almost immediately, not expecting much. Many books that allegedly use tarot in some form (plotting, descriptively, thematically, etc.) often do so scantily, and rarely do so effectively. At the time I picked up The Hanged Man, I was pouting about Rosemary Edgehill's Speak Daggers to Her, which only includes one aside about tarot that comprises only two sentences. The Nine of Swords is pictured on the cover of the book, a vile example of bait and switch.

The Hanged Man surprised me on two levels. The first was the way the tarot is beautifully interwoven into the plot, not in an elementary or obvious manner at all. The second was that the book shattered my expectations of a Young Adult book. While I have a fairly broad readership in that genre, I didn't expect to find prose as poetic as Maya Angelou's or Colette's. Block's words do a graceful, shimmering dirty dance on the page, and the subject matter is not remotely adolescent in nature, even though the protagonist/narrator is a teenager. We follow her through a journey not unlike Dante's as she moves through a modernized Inferno, filmed luridly in Laurel Canyon. If it is Dante updated and gone Hollywood, it has lost none of its previous terror and horror.

A passage from the book illustrates much better than my words:

"At night, I lie awake thinking about the man who climbs in through windows and kills women. My eyes choke on the darkness and my stomach is like a live thing--a separate creature that I have imprisoned, that is under my power. It is a little painted demon howling inside me. I imagine the reason that I don't bleed any more each month is because this demon, this lie-baby is sucking up all the blood to feed itself, to keep itself alive. I hear stories about girls who don't eat--how their hair turns white and their gums bleed. But I feel beautiful, perfect. I am all pale bone and bone-pale flesh and pale hair and I am light. I am like some fairy thing. I dream about fairies dancing around the house with their rib cages showing like baskets under their flesh.

I could drift up and away from here. I am so light. Bound by nothing. Not even time. And I am pure now."

The word anorexia is never mentioned; there are no tedious visits to the psychiatrist where the heroine sees the light (she is already light, after all). This book is no adaptation of a movie of the week. The unexpected subtlety and brilliance of this work is that there's so much left unsaid and so much to hear and see.

The protagonist/narrator also talks about her desire to create a deck of her own that would be more inclusive of other cultures, and actually refers to Pamela Colman Smith and the Rider Waite deck, again in an esoteric manner. The book describes a deck that was "originally drawn by a girl who grew up in Jamaica...The colors are like Jamaica. There are green hills, blue skies, red, red flowers. But the people's skins--all of them--the High Priestess, Strength, the Star, the World--are white." Someone out there is saying, "So buy the girl a Motherpeace deck already!"

Clearly, the book is not light reading, but I found it very worthwhile, as will anyone who loves good literature with tarot threads spun into it like a fine tapestry.

If you would like to purchase this book, click here.

The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block
Publisher: Harper-Collins
ISBN#:  0064408329 (paperback)

Review and page 1994, 2002 Diane Wilkes