I'd always assumed that Ursula Le Guin only wrote science fiction, so I was surprised when I read her short story, "Ile Forest", that it had only the slightest touch of fantasy about it, and that it was actually quite straightforward in its setting and characters. Once again I chose this story from the collection, American Short Story Masterpieces. "Ile Forest" originally appeared in Le Guin's Orsinian Tales, a series of unrelated stories set in the imaginary country of Orsinia (you get the feeling this is some unnamed Eastern European country), each tale taking place at various times in history from 1150-1962. "Ile Forest" is a somewhat dark and brooding tale about love, murder and madness and maybe about absolutes (and whether there is such a thing).
I've read that in the original collection the reader doesn't find out when each story takes place until the end when the year is revealed. Perhaps because this story is on its own I found out at the very beginning that the incidents take place early in the 1900s. Le Guin gets the reader's attention right from the start:
"Surely," said the young doctor, "there are unpardonable crimes! Murder can't go unpunished."
The senior partner shook his head. "There are unpardonable people, perhaps; but crimes...they depend..."
"On what? To take a human life--that's absolute. Self defense aside, of course. The sacredness of human life--."
"Is nothing the law can judge of," the older man said dryly. "I have a murder in the family, as a matter of fact. Two murders." And, gazing at the fire, he told his story.
In 1902 the narrator, then a young man, goes with his sister to the Valone (a heavily forested area) to practice medicine. It's a drab area, a big dull plain. At the east end of it sits the Valone Alte, which gives one the semblance of being in the mountains. Sitting within a grove of trees is what looks like a castle in a fairy tale, "the castle of silver in a forest of gold". A year later Gil meets the owner when he's horribly ill. He nurses him back to health and later talks his sister, Pomona, into meeting him. Galvin had been married before, but his wife ran off with another man. There are intimations of madness and even of murder committed by Galvin, so when Gil discovers his sister has fallen in love with him, he confronts the caretaker of Galvin's land. Martin is a bit of a strange fellow. He's Galvin's servant and completely dedicated to him. He tells him the truth and tries to warn Gil and his sister off. But she marries him anyway.
I won't give away the ending, but it's a curious ending. The people are quite ordinary, though the circumstances under which they come together are rather extraordinary. At the very end the much older Gil, who's been looking back and reminisces, asks the younger doctor, "Do you see what I mean?" and I think I do. I don't see most things in life as being purely black and white, and neither, it seems, do the people in this story.
This was an interesting introduction to Ursula Le Guin's work, and I will have to look for more of her stories. I think I might like reading the rest of the stories that from her Orsinian Tales collection and will be looking for it in the library.