[This is part of "The Food of" series in which I discuss authors' uses of food in books for more than just something for characters to do as means of keeping scenes from being "talking heads" scenes. Food in books can have wonderful metaphorical meaning. And food tastes good, too, so recipes included at the end of discussion.] [SPOILERS AHEAD]
At only age sixteen, Mackenzie Bishop has a very important job: collect the wandering dead while they're still in the Narrows and return them to the Archive before they get out in the real world. The dead are called Histories and they are supposed to be resting in peace, each body containing the stories of that person's former life. They are kept in the Archive, watched over by Librarians, the only ones who can read their stories. Occasionally, they get out, and have to be returned by Keepers like Mac. Between the Archive and the real world is a realm known as the Narrows. This is labyrinth of corridors of locked doors, with each door connecting to a point in time & space in reality. Each Keeper has a master key that allows them to access these doors. Sometimes the returns are easy. Sometimes they're not. Her parents don't know a thing about this job she performs.
Mackenzie's little brother Ben is dead. So is her grandfather, her former Keeper mentor/trainer. Her mother and father have decided to sell their home and move into an apartment building to start over, to open a cafe and sell muffins. This is where the book opens, and to be honest, it's a slow, painful start. Mackenzie is going through so much loss, and these pages included so much backstory, I almost put the book down.
It was the world-building and the magic and the beautiful writing that kept me going. I wanted to know more about this place with the hidden doors. I wanted to know more about the Librarians and the boy in guyliner, who Mac meets when she's handing out Welcome Muffins to all the apartment residents.
"I was thinking we should bake some muffins," says Mom, "'Welcome' muffins!" She doesn't say it like welcome but rather like Welcome! "You know, to let everyone know that we're here. What do you think, Mac?"
It's not a bonding activity. It's determination, a happy mask Mac's mother puts on to pretend the loss of Ben hasn't destroyed her. She sends Mac with a basket of muffins and instructions to give one to all their neighbours in the building along with an invite to visit their soon-to-be-open coffee house. But no one is home, and Mac ends up leaving a muffin at each door. Like breadcrumbs. And we have more metaphor: attempts at normal life will be shut out because after the loss of a young family member, there is no normal. Part-way through her deliveries Mackenzie has to ditch the basket to go after an escaped History. But mom finds out.
"Mackenzie Bishop," she says, dropping her purse on the dining room table, which is the only fully assembled piece of furniture. "What is this?"
"A Welcome muffin?"
She drops the basket with a thud.
"You said you would deliver them. Not drop them on people's doormats and leave the basket in a stairwell. And where have you been?" she snaps. "This couldn't have taken you all morning. You can't just disappear. . . ." She's an open book: anger and worry too thinly veiled behind a tight-lipped smile. "I asked for your help."
"I knocked, but nobody was home," I snap back, pain and fatigue tightening around me. "Most people have jobs, Mom. Normal jobs. Ones where they get up and go to the office and come home."
They're not really talking about muffins. They're talking about how to move on after tragedy, each believing she knows what's best. While trying to read each other. But people are not as easy to read as books. Another wonderful metaphor running throughout the story.
Why muffins? I mean, if you're going to advertise your coffee house and say hello to your neighbours, why not cookies, macarons, brownies or cinnamon buns? Certainly cookies would be more cost effective than muffins. And for that matter, why muffins when cupcakes are so in fashion? It has to be because muffins are comfort food, more so than other baked goods. Can you imagine cookies or cupcakes playing the same role in this book to the same effect? Mom chooses muffins because she's trying to get comfortable in her new place, in her new life, and she's overcompensating on a grand scale. Other moms might bake muffins for the family at a time like this. Mackenzie's mom bakes muffins for the entire building. This says a lot about Mackenzie's mom without the need to flat-out explain it in the text.
When Mac collides in the hallway with Wesley, the boy in guyliner, nearly spilling the basket of muffins, we have another lovely metaphor, since Wesley goes on to shake up Mackenzie's carefully constructed world. Wesley saves the basket from hitting the floor, and we have another nice metaphor for his interaction with Mac later, when he turns out to be a Keeper and the two end up working together, watching each other's backs.
It's really awesome to read an author who really gets how to demonstrate her characters through metaphors like these. The use of muffins is highly effective, but it's only one aspect of The Archive. There are so many wonderful layers, so many more metaphors.
Mackenzie isn't specific about what kind of muffins her mom makes while she tries to look busy. The one Wesley pulls from the basket is blueberry, but I also imagine carrot or lemon poppy. Maybe chocolate chip. The kind of muffin that goes well with tea and offers sweet comfort on an early morning or in the middle of the afternoon. Personally, I like muffins that are a bit more unusual, and I think these work to be warm, comforting and welcome.
The recipe for Lemon Honey Olive Oil Muffins with Infused Milk is over at my Tumblr.