A recent trip to the library has left me with a pile of books to read, so you know what that means: Literary Lenormand! This time I also pulled tarot cards, for comparison purposes. Five cards each, to show the rise and fall of the plot (assuming it rises and falls). I always adore Chris Bohjalian, so this time I’m reading The Night Strangers.
First, both decks gave me a coffin. The 8/Coffin from the Lenormand, and the Four of Swords (retreat, reflect!) from the Rider Waite Smith Tarot. I’m thinking that this is a background of someone dying, but, full disclosure, I read the book flap, which says there may be ghosts (or at least dead characters) in this book. Full disclosure part 2: in deciding between two books, one with ghosts and one without, I will generally read the one with ghosts first. But that’s neither here nor there at the moment.
Next, we have the 3/Ship from the Lenormand, and the Eight of Pentacles from tarot. Travel, or movement, involving work. Both of these cards are fairly positive: it seems that the travel, and the work, are both good news. Or not, because the book flap says there is a work-related tragedy–a plane crash–that leads to 39 deaths. Which makes sense when you read these cards with the coffin that precedes them. And when you consider that the Ship is the Lenormand card that could most closely approximate a plane.
Middle of the book: 2/Clover from Lenormand, and the Four of Wands from tarot. A little luck in finding a home? The book flap also says that herbalists play a role, and here we have an herb (the clover) and more herbs (the Four of Wands wreath.)
Approaching the end, we have the 6/Clouds from Lenormand, and the Wheel of Fortune from tarot. Which also has lots and lots of clouds. Thunderstorm? It may be time for one. (I view the Wheel as a big clock. Full disclosure: I’m obsessed with time because I’m generally running late.) In addition, though, there is a basement door with bolts in it (again per the book flap) and that circular Wheel does look a bit like a bolt.
The ending: 12/Birds from the Lenormand, and the Devil from tarot. First, noting that the tarot is giving me two major arcanas for the ending, I see this as a book that builds up to a crescendo. But, the birds and the Devil? Both are twos, in a sense–two birds and two people on the Devil card. Are there two who are trapped by love and addiction? Do the ghosts finally “sing” of their existence? We shall see.
A final note: numerologically, my Lenormand cards add up to 4: House. I think it is the case that the house is an important part of this book. Central, really. Again, I read the book flap.
The tarot cards, numerologically, add up to five: the Hierophant (institutions, traditions, laws). Or, thinking of the 5s, a struggle of some sort. Five in Lenormand, of course, is the Tree. The family tree? Maybe. I also notice 2 fours and an eight among the tarot cards–a lot of seeming stability in the beginning, perhaps, before the shit hits the fan. I guess the Wheel could also be a fan! The fan blows and the clouds…dissipate? Leaving behind what we suspected all along but can now see is true?
Bohjalian fans, please feel free to comment. Or play along and do your own tarot or Lenormand reading on this book and share in the comments. Am I close? or way off track? I’m about to start reading, and will add to this post when I finish the book (so if you don’t want to read spoilers, either go read The Night Strangers NOW or don’t come back to this post until much later, or both).
6/6/17 update–I have finished reading!
So…how accurate were the Lenormand and tarot in predicting this book’s plot? I have to say that I’m rather stunned at how accurate both were. Bear in mind that much of what I’m going to say below will be confusing if you haven’t read the book–and I’m reluctant to summarize the plot in case you plan to read this. So if that is the case, go read, and then come back to the spoilers below.
The first cards
The coffins at the beginning of the Lenormand spread–well, the book does begin with a plane crash in which 39 people die. The birds at the end of that line of cards–well, the plane crash was caused by birds. The birds don’t appear until the end of this spread, while the crash is at the beginning of the story, but in Lenormand, the spread can be folded so that the cards on opposite sides are read together. That puts the birds being read with the coffin. And the coffin is next to the ship–the next best thing to an airplane in the Lenormand, which was developed before the Wright Brothers began working on the problem of flight.
The next set of cards
The Eight of Pentacles and the Ship are no surprise together. A major theme in the book is the pilot’s recovery from the plane crash–a crash that occurred while he was working (Eight of Pentacles). Work is also a theme in his recovery (or, “recovery,” since he doesn’t really recover to the degree one would want him to), as he keeps working on the house, taking down wallpaper, fixing stairs, etc. Moreover, if you read the Eight of Pentacles with its mate on the other side of the line, the Wheel, you might find yourself inclined to start asking many of the questions that anyone would ask after surviving a plane crash: Why me? Why now? Why this plane? Wheel of Fortune questions. Questions about karma, and why things happen to the people they happen to at the times when they happen.
The middle, or central, cards
The clover (which I’d read as here representing herbs) and the Four of Wands (which I’d read as here representing the house) are unquestionably central to this story. The house that the pilot (from the plane crash) and his family move into often does seem to act like a character in the story, and herbs play a major role (see below). One could also argue that the house relates not only to the house in which the pilot’s family live, but also to the greenhouses that are all over the landscape in this book. If we read the Four of Wands with the clover card beneath it, I’d say it’s not unreasonable to interpret that as a greenhouse.
Normally, though, I tend to see the Four of Wands as a happier card, a card that indicates living together in a happy home. That doesn’t happen here. However, experience tells me that I often see the Four of Wands, in readings, in situations where home life isn’t exactly perfect, in situations where there are indeed major challenges. It’s like a wedding card, in some ways–a wedding is such a happy occasion, but it also temporarily covers a relationship that may well have major challenges. But the Four here tells me that there is, if not happiness per se, a basic stability that exists in the situation.
The penultimate cards
Let’s consider the fourth column of cards: the Wheel of Fortune and the clouds. There’s much that is cloudy as we approach the book’s ending. It’s not clear who will survive the end of the book. (Clouds = doubts). Moreover, the beings on the corners of the Wheel card are reading–and reading, and books, play a role here. The twins are given books about herbalism to read, and the potion the making of which leads to the tragic death of one twin is based on a recipe found in a book. But the Wheel itself is rather important too. I’ve said before that I see the Wheel as not so much luck as time. What is it time for? (If it’s time for something, you’ll be lucky in achieving it–think of it that way.) Time is important as the book draws to a close. The herbalists believe that the potion must be made before the girls reach puberty, and they also fear that certain events have been happening too fast–so fast that they, also, may need to speed up their plans.
As we approach the end, let’s match up the tarot cards with their opposites as if they were Lenormand cards. That puts The Devil up against the Four of Swords. Well. I was surprised, when I pulled these cards, to see the Devil show up for the end of a story. But the ending of this story is rather horrific. It would make a fantastic horror movie (though I wouldn’t watch it–I’m way too squeamish for that). In thinking more about the Four of Swords, I have to note that there are, in fact, quite a few sharp edges in use by the middle and end of the book: 1) a dagger that is discovered hidden in the house and which is used by the pilot to stab himself in the belly, 2) the ax that is also discovered in the house and which the pilot uses to attack and open the door locked in the basement of his house, 3) the knife used for the murder of the psychiatrist, and 4) the knife grabbed by the pilot’s wife in what turns out to be a futile attempt to protect her daughters from evil herbalists who want to use the blood of one of her twins in a tincture (and if that doesn’t count as horror deserving of the Devil card, I don’t know what would!). I’m trying to remember if there are other sharp edges that I’ve forgotten (possibly the one that is used in the murder that occurs before the book begins?)–but it seems to me that it’s basically four that are central to the plot, and that the Four of Swords, in addition to showing us a coffin, is proving to be rather appropriate.
What do the birds mean, at the end? For this reading to be totally accurate, I’d want the birds to play a role in the ending of the story. I do see birds appearing throughout the story, often. They’re a recurring motif. But what I see here is the birds in their metaphorical meaning–two people talking to each other. Part of the horror of the ending of this story is that the evil herbalists manage to rewrite what happened, by drugging the family into losing their memories and telling them, again and again, a radically different story about the events that occurred. It’s implied that they even dose the parents with the potion made with the blood of their deceased daughter–the daughter who was murdered by the herbalists. So these birds seem appropriate in conjunction with the Devil card above them.
Some patterns that appear
The twos that show up throughout this spread, and even the doubled twos (the fours and the eight) seem appropriate as well. The pilot’s children are twins. That they are twins is in fact the source of the threat to them from the herbalists. The previous children to live in the house were twins. One of the herbalists, the only one who tries to save the children, is a surviving twin. And there is a brief appearance of another set of twins, who are remembered by an herbalist, though those twins apparently don’t remain in the community for long. So altogether–four sets of twos.
I also can’t help but notice the parallels between the ship and the clouds (in this Lenormand deck, there is a sailboat on the clouds card) and between the Eight of Pentacles (lots of circles) and the Wheel (a large circle). This is a story about a horrific deed that is repeated every time the herbalists need to revive themselves so they can live longer. Each reoccurrence is, in a sense, a full turning of the circle.
As I said before, I adore Chris Bohjalian’s books. The ending of this one made me a little queasy, though. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good book. The ending was surprising, and the horror of it made the book more circular, more true to its own logic, than a happy ending would have.
As for the reading overall–the cards were, in my opinion, dead on (no pun intended!). My interpretation of them, however, wasn’t. I couldn’t have imagined the way these events would play out and I can’t see myself having guessed all of this from the cards, even though, in retrospect, they were amazingly prescient. But that’s what this exercise is all about–practice reading, and practice seeing what the cards can refer to, in a context where the events are, if not set in stone, at least set in paper where they can be easily compared with the reading.
The truth is, though, if I were reading for a client, and saw that Devil card as the outcome, I would likely have said, “don’t worry about that Devil,” and would, maybe, give a pep talk about courage, and having the courage to look at the things that we normally would sweep into the shadows and avoid talking or thinking about. I would have regarded the Devil as someone who wants to trick us into being more scared than we need to be, or I would have read the Devil as an invitation to do deep, transformative work in those areas of the psyche that scare us. So this reading is apt for me–it’s a warning not to downplay potentially negative cards too much and not to reinterpret them in a too positive light. I still would never look at the Devil in the cards and say, “only horror can lie ahead!” But. I should be more willing to see that card as a red flag, and to follow up with other questions, such as, “how can this outcome be avoided?” and “how might it be possible to constructively react to the situation that is being described here?” So I see this as a lesson in learning to be more objective. It’s one thing to sugarcoat the medicine as it goes down. It’s another to replace the medicine with sugar entirely! Even Mary Poppins knew that.
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