The Fragile Keepers
by Natalie Pinter
(Hellbender Books, 2020)

The Fragile Keepers is a fantasy novel about faeries who intrude on the lives of a group of twentysomething Californians. The time setting is now, the place somewhere in the country near redwoods. The important landscape is the interior of the central characters, twin sisters Amy and Andre, their stepbrother Ben, and Shae and Grace, visitors from the other side.

I begin this review with a disclaimer. I am not a reader of fantasy fiction, or even of general fiction, and I have only a passing familiarity with the tradition of Celtic folklore from which Natalie Pinter draws for her novel. But I have read extensively in what is variously called esoteric or occult literature—the teachings of Gurdjieff, the poetry of William Blake, Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy—and am in sympathy with writing that seeks to explore the frontiers of human consciousness. The Fragile Keepers is such a work. Avoiding pure escapism, it rewards the reader with a journey into the marvelous and the magical. The fantasy that Pinter draws offers a commentary and perspective on the ordinary world we all now inhabit, a world infected with diseases of all kinds: ecological, cultural, spiritual.

As Pinter introduces her characters and fleshes them out, she stresses their ordinariness, their everyday routines that border on banality—lives that most of us lead: working, socializing, coping with family issues. Andre works in a health food store called Chestnut. She is vaguely dissatisfied, has a boyfriend named Ryan who calls her Bumblebee, and resists the conventional life he offers her. Ben is an unfulfilled musician who drinks too much and works as a waiter in a bar and grill. Amy, whose entry into the story is delayed, is more grounded, worldly but cynical. She’s bisexual and sports tattoos.

The ordinariness of Ben and Andre’s lives is disrupted when a ball of lightning appears in their yard and delivers to a shed a faery named Shae. Shae, we learn, has come from the other world on a mission to convey gifts and collect a tithe: a payment. Shae is tiny, delicate, with a musical voice that enchants. She is also deadly. As the story unfolds, we learn what gifts she has brought, the gravity of the tithe, and the impact of her visit on all the characters that Pinter weaves into the tale.

To go further into the story would be to spoil the fun that Pinter delivers through the surprises that Shae and her ally Grace visit on Ben and Andre. For Shae’s gifts are intended for them, but they must also suffer the pain of the tithe. What the reader should know in advance is that a moral vision of a better world underpins this author’s fantasy. The fantasy is a vehicle for positing an alternate world to the one we have made. Pinter recognizes that the perilous state of our planet and our culture is calling forth a yearning for transcendence into a supernatural reality where beauty and justice—even a harsh justice that insists on the link between life and death—prevail. The gift that Shae brings to Ben and Andre is the gift of creativity, of imagination, of personal growth and fulfillment. That the transformations they undergo through this growth must be accompanied by suffering and loss is the wisdom of the faery tale; its truth, if you will.

But let Pinter tell you herself:

The faeries come and go, dipping in and out of places where the barriers are thin. They harm. Help. Manipulate. They are known to a few but never seen by the masses. They bestow gifts and collect tithes. And sometimes they make changelings.

Our sickening earth turns on its axis. And the world is none the wiser.