A short story more than a novel or a novella, The Fifty Year Sword takes place on Halloween, when Chintana arrives at a party. She is unsure if she should attend, given that the party is in part a celebration of the birthday of Belinda Kite, the woman with whom her husband recently had an affair, but attend she does, running into five children, their social worker, and a storyteller who has arrived with a case to tell them the tale of how he found the sword inside. A soft horror story, it takes no real work to figure out that something bad will befall someone during the party, but in case you can't figure it out, Danielewski foreshadows it fairly easily, offering no twists, shocks, or reveals at the end. All of this sounds pretty slight and, to be honest, it really is--there's not a lot of substance here for the price that you will pay for the book, especially in terms of narrative, or prose invention.
Partly, the problem is how the book is narrated. Stepping out of a traditional narration in the form of a first person, second, or third narration, Danielewski tells the events of the night through five speakers, each of them identified by different coloured speech marks. These are the children, older now, and Danielewski attempts to create that cross stitched narrative by bringing both their younger and older voices to it. A good idea, it is unfortunately let down as Danielewski produces the cardinal sin of the narrative choice and offers no difference in each of the five voices who narrate the story, their conversation overlapping each and defined only by differently coloured speech marks. Now, before you think that harsh, let me assure you that there are plenty of options that Danielewski has open to himself, from changes of grammar, stronger language choices, etc. He doesn't need to fall into the trap of bad comic book accents to distinguish the difference, which perhaps he thought he would, given that no attempt has been made to provide to give them distinguishing qualities. In the end, his sin of prose ends up turning the voices of The Fifty Year Sword into the voices of a script, waiting from an actor to give them flesh, to have them spoken, of which I am sure the later performances would have exactly done. There, the overlapping, interrupted, broken narrative of five voices would have become a thing of fabulousness. Here, however, on the page, you can be forgiven for thinking it's one voice, and one voice retelling a story that, at its base, is a fairly uninspired short story.
But, to be fair, Danielewski is not just about narrative, and the substance of his work is not provided just through that, no. His use of page space, and in this case, his use of it in conjunction of images of real stitching to create an illustrated novel, bring a nice weight to the book. It has a good resonance with his narrative, allowing the reader to pick up on the story that binds the five children together, that sows their lives to Chintana's, to Belinda Kite's, and to all of those who attended the party. For the most part, the illustrations work well, though my one criticism is that they never seem to be sure if they are part of the narrative or an accompanying illustration, which creates a sense of imbalance in their use. There are also long sections where they just don't appear in the book, leaving a huge amount of white space to occupy the early pages. The downside of this it that it further leaves the reader with an impression of book not having a lot of content to it, either in its story, its ambition with the page, or its structural play.
In the end, I kept returning to that. No matter your opinion of Danielewski's previous novels, there's no arguing that there is a lot of substance in both, and that is, in truth, what is lacking in The Fifty Year Sword. The design of the book is so that it gives you the impression of being a weighter work, one that will engage you for more than thirty, forty minutes, wherein the actual content of it doesn't support that. It was the kind of piece that, if it were part of a collection, a portion of a larger display of Danielewski's shorter work, it would be considered interesting. Coupled with half a dozen other similarly sized projects, The Fifty Year Sword would result in a nice, meaty volume of work. After all, there was nothing I overtly disliked in it, despite the lack of difference in each and every voice that narrated, and there were things to like, such as when the children opened the case. But there's no denying that there's really just not much there for what you pay.
Bit of a shame, really.