The Necessary Beggar is one of those novels that's so earnest and heartfelt that one feels an absolute churl criticizing it. Susan Palwick's portrayal of her characters' emotional crises shows that we have a deeply compassionate and humanist writer at work. That so many of these scenes topple over headfirst into the purest bathos shows how easy it is to overdo this kind of thing. There's much about Palwick as a storyteller to admire. She knows how to get the hooks in. To what degree you feel manipulated will be, I'm sure, an entirely personal matter. I wanted, really wanted to give myself over to the tragic circumstances of this novel's family of protagonists. But I found them a difficult bunch to like, and it was not a situation remedied by heart-tugging scenes, both happy and sad, that felt like they came right out of the Lifetime Channel's playbook.
Zamatryna is a young girl whose entire family is exiled from their homeland, the city of Lémabantunk in the land of Gandiffri, when her uncle Darotti is convicted of the murder of a young woman. This woman, the daughter of a nobleman, was serving a year as a Mendicant, which in Gandiffri is a form of spiritual calling. Folks in Lémabantunk are supposed to be generous to Mendicants as a form of gratitude for their good fortune in life, not, needless to say, murder them. And under a rather excessive tradition called the Law of Hearts, not merely the criminal but his entire family must be exiled. This is done through a doorway into another dimension, the nature and existence of which is never once explained. In a book full of curious plot devices, this is just one.
This particular doorway opens, for some reason, in the United States in the early 2020's, and, quite handily, smack dab in the middle of a refugee camp near Reno, Nevada. Zama and her family find themselves in a strange country where the political situation has gotten no better in the years following 9/11 and the Bush administration. The U.S. has apparently suffered more terrorist attacks, and the rest of the world is even more war-torn. Zama and her family are amongst hundreds of refugees who have flooded the U.S., to the great chagrin of a mostly xenophobic population who'd just as soon burn the camps. Their situation is worse, however, because they have no passports or other paperwork to show where they've come from. Though the almost preternaturally smart Zama learns English very quickly at the camp's schools, there's no real way to explain their alien origins to the patient counselors and military people, either. Darotti, unable to contain his shame, kills himself, though his restless spirit remains tied to the family.
By this point, despite the contrivances Palwick had already concocted to get her story underway, I thought the book showed promise. If this was to be a sociopolitical examination of post-9/11 geopolitics and prejudice as seen through the eyes of people from another world, I was quite ready to settle in for an intellectually and emotionally stimulating read. But that isn't what we get. The Necessary Beggar wastes no time in becoming a Movie of the Week, a tear-jerking melodrama in which characters behave in ways designed to satisfy plot requirements. That isn't to say that Palwick's depiction of the pressures put upon Zama's family aren't often convincing. But, like any good Movie of the Week, we quicky find that there's no crisis so devastating that it can't be solved by heaping helpings of Forgiveness and Love. It also helps if you have a few saints and ghosts pulling strings behind the scenes as well.
Realizing they can never return to Gandiffri, the family determines to make a new life as Americans. As Zama grows up, excelling scholastically so that she can support her family as a lawyer, she meets a football player named Jerry who's just a bit too perfect and understanding and patient and supportive in his unconditional love for her. The guy isn't really a person. Like the dimensional doorway, he's a plot device to get characters from point A to point B in the narrative. Jerry is meant to draw Zama out of her shell (she really gets to be a stuck-up b-word, to be honest) so that she can be the one to reunite her fractured family and heal their rifts.
In fact, the book has a number of supporting characters like this, who are either only too eager to help Zama's family at great self-sacrifice, or who are meant to serve as symbols (and does Palwick love her in-your-face symbolism) or catalysts for our heroes' emotional and spiritual growth. Zama's family is given a home outside the camps by Lisa and her husband Stan, a Christian couple who represent both extremes of the stereotype: Lisa is the charitable one, Stan the judgmental and prejudiced one (though not so much so that a little nagging from Lisa won't bring him around). And then there's Betty, the pitiful homeless lady with heart disease, whom Jesus Jerry is only too happy to spend his entire life's savings on so she can get triple bypass surgery. Betty, who is first befriended by Zama's grandfather, becomes the titular "Necessary Beggar," referring to a Gandiffri ritual in which a holy Mendicant is found to bless the newlywed couple. Zama, though thoroughly Americanized, decides that if she has this kind of traditional Gandiffri wedding with Jerry, it can heal the sadness and pain in her entire family. And the spirit of Darotti, still hanging around and eager to do his bit to help the family whose turmoil he caused, goes to work as well. You'd think he could do this better had he not committed suicide, but along with the dimensional doorway, I guess Palwick needed a ghost for the fantasy element.
I know Palwick feels this story from the very bottom of her obviously deep heart. There's no doubting the emotional sincerity of what she depicts as this story unfolds. And a couple of scenes do work, especially the tragic story of what really happened between Darotti and his victim — though in its outcome, you might find yourself contemptuous of their mule-headed stupidity more than anything else. But emotional sincerity does not always deliver emotional truths, as we see in the story's pell-mell rush into mawkishness and contrivance as it nears its climax. A race-against-time chase scene to catch a bus spiriting Betty away to a government internment camp for the homeless is perfectly shameless.
Palwick is a skilled writer who will fulfill the promise of her nascent talents once she lets go of melodrama and takes a more nuanced approach to her themes. For now, I'd have to say that readers looking for a redemption story told without so much button-mashing would do better to stick with Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle. This Beggar just isn't necessary.