Strange Horizons, March 4, 2013

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Strange Horizons,  March 4, 2013 

“I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You” by Karen Tidbeck

Reviewed by Matthew Nadelhaft

Karen Tidbeck’s “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You” struck me as an odd story to find in Strange Horizons, which serves only to remind me of the myriad varieties of story publishable as speculative fiction. In fact, its presence in Strange Horizons causes something of a quandary for me. This story could have been published anywhere, and I would have liked to use its publication as genre fiction as the occasion for a discussion of boundaries, definitions, and the publishing marketplace. Unfortunately, I can’t, because ultimately I have to engage with the story and not the politics of its selection and publication. That it is a good enough story both to raise these questions and then to force them back into my head makes it a successful conundrum indeed.

Tidbeck’s story has a matter-of-fact, deft tone and a contemporary setting. After possibly the best opening line I’ve encountered in years it tells the story of Anna Selander, a depressive undergoing an experimental new therapy. One of the story’s few problems, I felt, stemmed from the juxtaposition of its tone with its narrative position: it is firmly rooted in Anna’s point of view, yet the prose is light and entertaining and never came off convincingly as the thoughts of a serious depressive.

Nevertheless, “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You” is an engrossing and provocative tale. Anna’s latest treatment is inspired by the “scapegoat” concept from the Bible. Her doctor gives her a goat. Having the animal works for Anna from the start. If her mood improves a little too quickly to be believable even in speculative fiction it is perhaps forgivable, given the brevity of the story and the author’s desire to maintain a narrative pace matching the breezy tone. “Sadgoat” is no mere therapeutic animal companion, though: as it fulfills its medical purpose it also fulfils the Biblical metaphor, taking into itself Anna’s illness.

What is going on in this remarkable little story is quite an achievement. There is humour, pathos, characterization, and a multi-layered theme. Not only does Tidbeck tell an engrossing story, she also examines an old but thorny Biblical trope, satirizes the medical profession, casts a bit of light on the condition of the depressive patient, and causes us to reflect on the relationship between humans and animals. While I think the story could benefit from being lengthened to strengthen all of these elements, as it stands the seeds of them are deeply planted and “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You” places its author’s name on my list of writers-to-watch and its themes bang in the middle of my consciousness.