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What I'm Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

Held by Anne Michaels

 
 Preparing for the extraordinary by evoking the mundane

 

How do you write about love? Anne Michaels, in her startlingly original and evocative novel, Held, does it by zooming in to a moment of intense and heightened awareness in the lives of six couples who feel a deep and lasting connection with one another. It is a panorama of love, jumping through two centuries from 1908 to 2025 and moving from place to place between France and England.  This panoramic view is made up of fragments of lives we come to know intimately as love inhabits them and then sometimes leaves them, moving between passion to grief to fear.  It's a timely novel because it's also about the destruction to love brought about by war.
 
This restless narrative, shifting in time and place, gives me an array of strikingly different situations loosely connected to one another as one generation after another creates a life with another person who becomes their beloved. Facing hardships created by death, injury, and loss, each character is a seeker of truth, a bearer of the sensory details of their intimate, everyday relationship with the beloved.
 
It seems appropriate, for a novel based on a theme, that the pages look different.  There aren't any paragraphs; Michaels writes in blocks of text, each separated by a double space. More fragments than paragraphs, they have a fluidity and looseness that fits the overall episodic structure in this shifting third person point of view novel, mimicking the fragmentary quality of perception.
 
The characters in Held are so closely observed and intimately described that I recognize their bodies and minds easily when they appear again. Because they're seekers, it makes the reader a seeker too, so that when death visits, and it does so often, it's natural to wonder what happens next, but Michaels goes there too, doing so without any sensationalism so it seems entirely natural.
 
But is there any cohesion in such an episodic, fragmented approach?  Is there a story?  Yes, but the cohesion is around the idea that a deeply felt love is what we human beings are destined for, and that it follows us through life and into the afterlife; Michaels' characters often see and at other times simply feel, ghostly visitations from their loved ones. 
 
Here is John, in England in 1920: He's a war-injured portrait photographer, and when he develops a negative of a young man who has came to have his photograph taken as a present for his father, John finds something surprising.  Beside the man whose photograph he took, a a ghostly image takes shape in the darkroom.  This is what he see:
 
"the young man, beautifully clear and evocatively lit, handsome and whole in body; behind him, the luxurious drapery, the nap of velvet and details of brocade, sharp and precise; and in his hand, a book, Matthew Arnold's Stanzas, even the shadows of the letters embossed on the cover.   And beside him, semi-opaque, but perfectly distinct, an older woman, well dressed, pearl buttons, her fine head and lustrous hair, and her expression of intolerable longing" (56).

 
That expression of intolerable longing is the manifestation of love. When the young man sees the image he tells the photographer it's his mother. "We never said goodbye. She died when I was in Belgium. She's come to say goodbye" (63).
 
And then Michaels takes it further, because the manifestation of the supernatural isn't the only thing she's after. What she's more interested in is describing the moment when feeling is at its most intense. She tells us that when John first hands the photograph to his subject, "The young man's face was unreadable—John had never before witnessed such an expression. Beatitude" (63).
 
And here is John's partner, Helena, remembering how it felt when they first were together:
 
"One can work hard and listen to the news on the wireless and shout for what's right and fetch bread from the corner shop while the kettle is on, and still be clean and naked, new and untouched, ready to surrender all in a moment, the silk gathering between my legs as we ran up the stairs, the sound of my soft leather handbag falling to the floor inside the front door, the paper bag of groceries, the keys falling from your hand, ready to surrender all, ready to be struck to flame with a single touch" (86).
 
Over and over, Michaels creates these intensities of emotion because she takes her time with mundane details.  She approaches slowly, evoking ordinary, everyday things: In the first excerpt, what I see initially are the objects and textures visible in the photograph, and in the second, I see the handbag, the bag of groceries, the keys, all of it dropping to the floor as the lovers surrender to passion.  And what a true and wonderfully simple description she gives us in "struck to flame with a single touch."  It's hot and it's romantic and I believe the reason it achieves intensity is because the prelude was a recitation of the ordinary.  Keys, drapery, a book, a handbag: over and over, Michaels takes us to the extraordinary via the route of the ordinary moments of everyday life.
 
 
 Michaels, Anne. Held. New York: Knopf, 2024.

The Spare Room by Helen Garner

 

 

Setting a performance within a novel: what it can achieve
 
A friend, whose opinion I trust, raved about a novel she had just read called, The Children's Bach, by Helen Garner.  My bookstore didn't have a copy available, so while I waited, I read Garner's more recent novel, The Spare Room, and I am pleased to report that it too was a fantastic read and I feel excited about discovering a new writer.

 

Though Helen Garner has been well known in her native Australia since the late seventies, I had never heard of her. The Spare Room, published in 2008, is her most recent novel and because of its beautifully direct and intimate tone, it hugs the border between fiction and memoir.  Narrated in the first person by a woman who is hosting an old friend for an extended stay while she receives an alternative treatment for cancer, the voice reflects a kind, but practical woman who is firmly in control.  Her name is Helen, an obvious stand-in for the author.

 

Once her friend Nicola arrives, they retrieve the old fondness, their banter expressive and full of familiarity.  But soon, the strain of caring for a sick friend shows itself, and what is most difficult for Helen is not the sheets she must wash daily because of the copious night sweats that are a result of the treatment, but Nicola's presumption that the cancer will soon be driven away. She won't allow skepticism; she demands from Helen the same trust and belief in the cure that she has. This is an emotional strain for Helen and a source of ongoing tension. Here it is in play when Nicola announces she has a four o'clock appointment with the alternative doctor:

 

"I'm coming with you."
"Oh no, darling—I'll take the train. Just point me in the direction of the station."
'You're not in any condition to walk to the station."
"Of course I am! Look at me!" She spread her arms...
"What about yesterday? I didn't know what to do. You could hardly put one foot in front of the other."
"Oh, Hel! Did I give you a fright?" She gave a gutsy laugh. "You mustn't worry when I get the shivers. It's only a side effect of the vitamin C driving out the toxins" (19-20).

 

Nicola's inability to accept her condition or indeed to see the huge demands her stay with Helen imposes, turns her into a child. More than once, Helen must play rescuer and increasingly, she sees the doctor as a racketeer preying on desperate people. It's an engrossing, sticky situation that escalates, secretly, into a battle.

 

Towards the end of the novel, after the two friends have a heart to heart and Nicola seems to grasp Helen's reality, they go to a magician's performance that Helen wants to review. Sitting at the bar together, facing the stage, all seems to be repaired between them. But when the magician focuses his attention on Nicola and tells her, in a seductive tone, that there are many ways to make a thing disappear, she is hooked. What follows is a performance of seamlessly executed sleights of hand that mesmerize the room. Things do disappear. The magician seems to have command not only of his audience but of reality itself.  It's a powerful, remarkable scene. At the outset, I was reminded of the moment in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice when Aschenbach glimpses a fellow passenger on the boat, an old man in a party of young revelers who is cleverly disguised as a youth. His lewd, drunken gestures haunt Aschenbach. Though the magician is not a grotesque like the ridiculously costumed old man, he too offers illusion.

 

In a novel about the push and pull of fantasy vs. reality, what a brilliant ploy it is to create a scene with a performer whose job it is to blur the boundaries. The magician truly makes things disappear; I was as mesmerized as the characters.  His artistry has even Helen duped.  In the end, the performance accomplishes a very great feat: It shifts me, the reader, from a black and white, victim and oppressor vision to an acceptance of our basic human hunger for illusion.  In a sense, what the magician also disappears is the sharpness of Helen's judgment, the didacticism that was a wedge between the two friends. They become equals, both believers, spellbound by the magician's seductive act.
 
Garner, Helen. The Spare Room. New York: Picador, 2008.

The Road from Belhaven

 
 



 It's hard to put down Margot Livesey's riveting new novel, The Road from Belhaven, because the troubles of the protagonist, Lizzie Craig, which are the enduring troubles of young women, are complicated by a psychic ability she has inherited from her deceased mother. These complications turn what might otherwise have been a straight-forward coming-of-age story into a gripping narrative of loss, suffering, and redemption.

 

Raised by her grandparents on a struggling sheep farm called Belhaven, Lizzie's childhood is filled with animals, including a tame bird named Alice that she trains to follow her.  As she collects eggs, clears a pasture of sharp things that could injure their animals, and helps her grandparents with the harvest, the reader is embedded in the details of her daily life through a close third person perspective that imbues this rural world with a girl's excitement.

 

The pictures from the future come to Lizzie only occasionally, but when they do, they interrupt her daily tasks with a jarring but insistent image of something that is immediately distressing and requires action of some kind.  She keeps the pictures secret from her grandparents, who would scoff at the idea of them, but second sight becomes central to who Lizzie is, and will become central to the developing story. In these beautiful first lines, which do so much to set up the sensory aliveness of Lizzie's childhood, the reader learns she has a secret.

 

"The summer she was ten she learned not to speak of it. She told the hens, she told the cows, she told the pond at the bottom of the field and the ducks who swam there and her pet jackdaw, Alice, but she did not tell her grandparents, Rab and Flora, or Hugh, the farm boy, or Nellie, who had helped in the house when she, Lizzie, was learning to walk and whom they still saw every week at the kirk" (3). 

 

The pleasing rhythm of a short declarative sentence followed by a long sentence that is a string of dependent clauses full of first names, gives me not only the rough circumference of the setting, but a sense of Lizzie's devotion to the animals, people, and places of this pastoral homestead.

 

When she's eleven, her older sister, Kate, comes to live at Belhaven. Raised in a distant town by their other grandparents, Kate brings to Lizzie's narrow and isolated life an awareness of other places, other ways of being, and when she introduces Callum, her fiancé, into the tight family unit at Belhaven, the door is opened to matters of romance.
 

The Road from Belhaven is set in Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century and though the present is richly evoked, it is the future that is most menacing.  For women in the days before birth control, before knowledge about female anatomy and its cycles of fertility was available, sex was dangerous. As Kate blithely steps into pregnancy and marriage, she is the unwitting guide for her impressionable, younger sister who sees everything, including, most importantly, how Kate sneaks out of the house at night to be with Callum.

 

The values Flora instilled in her granddaughter are no match for the imperatives of adolescence, especially as illustrated by Kate.  When Lizzie breaks a plate and hides the pieces, her grandmother finds them and says, "Anyone can break a plate, but a lie will always find you out. Promise me, Lizzie, you'll always tell the truth. She had promised and, save for the pictures and an occasional fib, kept her word. But Kate's feelings for Callum seemed to sweep away all other considerations" (63).

 

When Kate arrives at Belhaven, she is burdened by adult experience, the death of the grandmother who raised her and the longing for a boy from whom she is separated. These losses give her the courage to take risks that Lizzie watches and learns from. Kate becomes Lizzie's guide so when Kate and Callum are married and the baby arrives before nine months are up, no one speaks a word.  The lesson? Sex will lead to marriage and marriage bestows virtue upon an impulsive woman.

 

"From the field where they'd lifted the potatoes last week came the cry of the curlews pecking the newly turned earth with their long, curved beaks. Watching them, Lizzie thought there were the things she understood—animals and crops and the weather and her grandparents—but running beneath them, beyond her understanding, was a dark river where a girl could drown; where brothers could hurt a sister; where Kate would risk anything for Callum" (65).

 

I love this paragraph.  The two sentences move deftly from the concrete—the curlews pecking the earth—to the abstract—risk and harm—to show her transition from girlhood to womanhood, and most importantly, how Lizzie's land-based upbringing is challenged by the chaos of new knowledge. She sees the unmarried girl who drowned herself in the river, hears the town's gossip about her behavior with a local boy; she learns about a girl growing up with older brothers who abuse her, and begins to connect these dark stories with her sister's determination to be with Callum no matter the consequences. But stories of fallen women are no match for Kate's example because Kate possesses an authority that outweighs all the tales of woe.  This is the power of a guide character. Kate's behavior creates a pattern for Lizzie to follow; her sister's example rules over the practicalities she's learned on the farm, instilling romance, a quality that outweighs the lessons of hardship Lizzie has learned. And because Kate arrived from the mysterious circumstances of another set of grandparents who raised her in a distant town, she has the allure of the unknown, the new, the foreign, qualities the down-to-earth Lizzie can't help but be attracted to.

 

By creating a guide character, Livesey sets up a classic tension: what is right for one person often is not right for the next. But it will take a whole book of lies before Lizzie finds where the truth is hiding.  The reader knows before Lizzie knows so when finally she understands…well, it's an emotional moment for all of us!
 
Livesey, Margot. The Road from Belhaven. New York: Knopf, 2024.        

Return to Valetto by Dominic Smith

 

Reading Dominic Smith's new novel, Return to Valetto, is to be transported to Italy. My senses are filled with the pleasures of a foreign place and my mind is absorbed with a mystery that develops early in the novel.  Valetto is an almost completely abandoned town in Umbria where the remaining residents number ten, including the Anglo-Italian Serafino family which consists of three aged sisters who live with their 99-year-old mother in a crumbling villa that is perched, like the town itself, on "a spur of rock in the middle of a valley of canyons" (13).  Though battered by weather and time, "the pale umber walls" (13) contain the untouched secrets of the town's fascist history while in the present, an American man named Hugh Fisher arrives to spend six months doing research. The cottage where he will stay, sitting behind the villa, was the property of his deceased mother, the fourth Serafino sister, and as the place where Hugh came in the summers, it is full of memories from his boyhood.

 

But there is a squatter in the cottage, a woman named Elissa who claims that Aldo Serafino, the father of the four sisters, a man who disappeared when they were children to join the partisan cause and was never heard from again, deeded it to her family. Must they honor her claim?

 

The town of Valetto is accessed by a high, narrow footbridge that spans the valley of canyons it overlooks.  Smith creates a thrilling prelude in the novel's opening pages as Hugh walks across this bridge. It gives me, the reader, a chance to view the villa from a distance while I learn more about my first-person narrator.

 

He introduces himself with this intriguing sentence: "I specialize in abandonment" (4).  It's not meant metaphorically. Hugh is an historian who has published a book on abandoned towns in Italy. Soon I learn that he himself is filled by vacancy. Death took away both his wife and mother in a span of four years, absences he has not quite recovered from.

 

During the walk across the footbridge, as Hugh moves ever closer, he remembers a recent exchange with his adult daughter, Susan, who takes it upon herself to be the gentle, goading force to dislodge him from grief.  "She wouldn't have wanted this for you," she tells him and even in these early pages, I know that "this" refers to Hugh's habit of being stuck within his losses. In fact, it is the slowness of his halting, fearful progress away from grief that grows my anticipation.

 

"How do you know what your mother wanted?"

 

"She told me that I shouldn't let you wallow. That your people were wallowers."

 

"That does sound like her" (20), Hugh concedes.

 

With this exchange fresh in his mind, his gaze, while still on the footbridge, rests on the figure of the disrupter, a tall, broad-shouldered woman standing at the door of his cottage, fumbling with the lock.  The juxtaposition makes me wonder, might she be the force to prevent  Hugh's continued wallowing? "The woman had a Tesla coil of brunette hair, and she was wearing olive-colored corduroys and a black angora sweater" (20).

 

A Tesla coil? Google tells me it's an electrical transformer used to increase voltage. What a strange metaphor. But then I saw the visual I was being guided to consider: the lightening-like strands of hair loosed from the bun, like sparks leaping from a coil. Even at the beginning of the novel, when all I have to go on is the fact of Elissa's presence, I can see that a tesla coil captures her  energetic, contrary nature. Clearly, she will be someone the mild-mannered Hugh will have to reckon with. Will it draw him closer or push him away?

 

Still approaching the villa, Hugh thinks of his three aunts and mother, all named for flowers: Iris, Violet and Rose are the three Serafino sisters still alive, but Hazel, his mother, was named for a different kind of flower. The hazel blossom opens in the winter, popping out of the bare branches of the hazel tree, sending tiny red shoots out from an orb that will become the hazel nut. More sparks!

 

As Hugh comes to the end of the bridge, I have the image of two crackling, electrified woman in front of me and though I've been told by Hugh himself that he's attracted to vacancy, I am fond of him already and eager to see him step out of isolation and enter the charged territory both the memories of his mother and the flesh and blood Elissa inhabit. 

 

In just 17 opening pages, the tensions that will play out over the next 300 are set before me. The story's dimensions are suggested already: I know enough about the setting, the time, the characters, and the problem that, as Hugh steps onto the first cobblestones of Valetto, I know I'm entering a town still haunted by a past Hugh will need to uncover.
 
Smith, Dominic. Return to Valetto. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023.

Witness by Jamel Brinkley

 
 

 
Witness, Jamel Brinkley's new volume of short stories, is as awe-inspiring and accomplished a collection as his first, A Lucky Man. Brinkley shares my shelf with the greats: Stuart Dybek, Alice Munro, William Trevor, and Edward P. Jones.

 

Witness is both the title of the last story and an umbrella term for the collection as a whole where, in many of the stories, one family member is at the center and sees most clearly. As in his first collection, the community Brinkley writes about is the Black middle class in Brooklyn and the Bronx where trouble comes from many directions. 

 

What is so compelling about this writer? Let's look at one of my favorites in Witness, "Bartow Station." It's a first-person narrative from the point of view of an unnamed man who is probably in his mid to late twenties.  The story opens in a locker room at UPS where our narrator, who's just been hired, is being trained by an older driver named Jimmy who is gruff, but not begrudging of advice.

 

Our narrator has arrived to work in the shoes he wore "the last time I set foot in a church. In memory of my cousin. Troy" (181).

 

His shoes are the first things Jimmy notices. "For real, get you some new shoes, quick, or your feet are fucked. I mean, they gonna end up fucked anyway, but still—" (180)

 

Jimmy's statement implies permanence. He assumes the narrator will settle into the job and deliver UPS packages for the rest of his life, but our man doesn't let a beat go by without setting him straight: "This is just a gig, man…I'm not here to collect a pension or anything." and Jimmy warns him, "lower your voice when you say some shit like that. People kill for these jobs" (181).

 

Those shoes are the first indication that Brinkley is working two floors, the surface and the basement. On the surface, the story is about our narrator's hook-up with Zoelle, a woman he meets at a shop where he makes deliveries, while the basement story, which unfolds in a piecemeal manner at the same time the surface story advances, is about Troy. And as the story of Troy slowly emerges, we start to understand something crucial about our narrator. He's not committed to daily life. Nothing touches him because he's not grounded, not in a job or a relationship because he's not grounded in himself. He can't even find appropriate shoes. And why not?  The reader won't know the answer for another 16 pages, but the first clue that the basement exists is the name. This name will be dropped 4 more times in the next 10 pages, each time with a little more context surrounding it so that what's just a name takes shape as a teenage boy with certain habits by the end.  The first casual mention of Troy tells us that he had to go to a church because of him. Most readers will suspect at once it was for a funeral. A few pages later we come to this stunning paragraph where we learn that they grew up together.  Our narrator has just met Zoelle at the flower shop he makes deliveries to:

 

"She has baby locs, fuzzy sideburns, a gaze that won't flinch. The stormy hands of the eighth-grade girls who liked to play-fight with me and Troy in the parking lot after school—quick hands that sudden and seize the air—and I am waiting an especially long time for the delivery to be inspected on the Friday morning when those hands pluck a pink tea rose from a diamond-shaped dish on the counter and let it drop into my palm. The rose's stem, snapped, is just a couple of inches long" (183).

 

And here's another thing Brinkley does: the characters are identified as much by their gestures as their words There is Zoelle and her "stormy hands," Jimmy and his "massive head" that "tilts left and then right, as if his neck can't hold it" (181), our narrator with the grip that's too strong, too tight and frightens Zoelle. "`You're hurting me,' she repeats" (194).

 

The third clue about Troy comes on the next page when our narrator gets dressed for his first date. "The mirror shows I've already lost a few pounds in the August heat. Only one old T-shirt shows off my chest and shoulders the way I want. The jeans I put on sag too much off my ass, the style back when Troy and I were boys" (184).

 

So far, all the references to Troy suggest little more than a shared boyhood, but it's becoming clear that in everything our narrator does, Troy is a presence in our narrator's floating life. He tells Zoelle on their first date, after she makes a reference to his job, "Look, just so you know, I'm not trying to drive a delivery truck forever or anything" (187).

 

On another date, looking at street murals with Zoelle, he is reminded of the cartoons he and Troy would watch on Saturday mornings. This is the fourth clue, and it suggests a friendship that was closer to cohabitation. When our narrator goes to the bar Zoelle likes to frequent, "the din of the shabby bar—the manic disclosures and lustful intimations, the percussive sounds of wood and glass, the piped-in music seeping into the fissures of silence—brings me back to the summer when I was fifteen and Troy and I worked as waiters for tips and under-the-table cash at the restaurant his father co-owned on City Island" (190). That's the last clue we get, but for this one, the context is extended to describe what they would do after work on the island, the party boats they snuck onto, the cheap champagne they imbibed, their uninhibited dancing for the tourists. This is the final preparation for the story's climax when the narrator's past, his memories of Troy, and his present, his relationship with Zoelle, collide.  The trouble starts when she takes him on a tour of a long disused tunnel in Brooklyn, and the constriction of the pathway, the closeness of the dirt walls, understandably cause terror in a man already trapped in the tombs.

 

And that brings me to another quality I admire. There are no easy solutions.  The realizations a character may come to are qualified and don't lead to change. No one can step away from their past quickly or easily; they do it by degrees, if at all. But that's appropriate because it's also the way Brinkley constructs a story: lives are lived in layers of time; the present is haunted by the past, and in "Bartow Station" and another story in the volume, "Comfort," Brinkley uses the same method, a relentless trickle of memory. What makes these stories powerful is the slowness of this accretion as the unsettled past seeps into his characters' attempts to live in the present.

 

Brinkley, Jamel. Witness. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023. 

The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

 

I have long been a fan of Anne Enright's fiction and in her latest novel, The Wren, The Wren, the Booker prize winning Irish writer is her reliably intimate, earthy, sensual self. Told through a shifting third person narrator, the novel is about a mother and daughter descended from a well-known poet who had abandoned his wife when she became ill. A daughter from that marriage is Carmel, and when she becomes a mother early in her adult life, she chooses to raise her daughter by herself.  That daughter, Nell, a texting, instagramming, social media virtuoso is a sensual, twenty something who will steal the reader's heart.

 

The grand progenitor of it all, the poet, is a fictional figure and his poems—seven of them appear in the pages of the novel—are captivating, not only because they are rich in natural imagery, but jaunty, rhythmic, and expressive of a reverence for the natural world. The family myth is about how the young girl who became his wife and the mother of his daughters, was seduced by this poetry and throughout his life, it is his literary acumen that attracts female attention. But Enright wisely puts his story in the background, because there are the poems themselves and they capture his essence in a refreshingly concrete and specific way. There is only one chapter from his point of view and that's all we need.

 

The other chapters shift between Carmel, his youngest and favorite daughter, and her daughter, Nell, and in both women we can see the long-term effects of his brief but enduring presence as Carmel's father. How these two women conduct themselves with the opposite sex is the territory this novel claims and what a rich and interesting place it is! Carmel, once pregnant, has no interest in an ongoing relationship with the father, but Nell, who is immediately attracted to the wrong kind of man, does want to be with a mate.

 

The pleasures of this novel are, first, the characters. There is well grounded, no-nonsense Carmel and floaty, funny, deeply observant Nell.  The second pleasure is what Enright does with language. Through Nell, in both her strange and somewhat faltering career, we experience, on the page, how the compression and fragmentation of communication necessary in social media rearranges sentences and transforms thought:

 

"He sends a text,
-Sup?
-Yeah, good I say, and there is nothing for many hours.
The next morning I try,
-You? And he says,
-Ng which could mean anything. Then later
-Stuff!!!
He sends a picture of his desk. I look at it, enlarge it. The desk has a curved front and fits into a corner space..."(47).

 

Enright doesn't judge this fragmentation of language but instead, let's us see how it affects relationships. As Nell chops and dices her sentences to message him, the movement of her thought and the growth of her frustration with this evasive man becomes transparent. Every time the prose line shifts to the more intimate distance of texting, and it occurs infrequently enough that it always feels fresh, Nell and the reader enter a place of stasis together. Nothing much gets said, but words are made and what we notice, of course, is that the lines of text look and sound not only like the bird song Nell takes note of, but the sonorous poems her grandfather wrote.

 

The seven poems, used as chapter breaks in the novel, communicate many things to the reader, but first, we are made to understand that they are revered and treasured by the Irish people.
When Nell's first boyfriend, Felim, the "He" in the above excerpt, brings her to the country to meet his family and see the farm, his grandmother recognizes the last name.

 

"You're the daughter
No.
Oh he was a rare one.
Ah, no. I am the granddaughter.
You are very welcome here, she said. And I thought I would run screaming out of the house tearing my hair and ripping off my clothes. I would streak naked through the near field and the long field and the fucking far field and there I would live, crouched and mad in the ditch. I also felt as though I had come home.
Thank you, I said" (44).

 

Enright takes us to the center of this emotional tangle, where Nell enjoys the glow of her grandfather's fame at the same time that she hates the man who abandoned her mother, aunt, and grandmother. Sure enough, the poem we arrive at a few pages later is a love poem called "A Scent of Thyme." Here's the first verse:

 

Lay your dark head upon my breast,
your honey mouth with scent of thyme
what man could not love you – so blest
and sweet, oh love, sweet love of mine (55).

 

Feeling these lovely rhythms, but knowing what I know, watching how Felim treats Nell, the intent of the poem shifts. The words seem slippery and aggressive and I can't

help but think of the rapturous male as vicious. I, the reader, have learned what Nell has learned: beautiful language cannot be trusted. 

 

"The Wren, The Wren" is the title for a poem we don't see until a third of the way through the novel. As the poet recounts his experience holding a wren in "the cup/of my fist" for the moment until the bird escaped, leaving his palm "pin-pricked," his "earthbound heart of her love's weight relieved," the irony that this is the poem the poet writes for his daughter Carmel is not lost on the reader. The father left the nest and flew away, leaving his wife and daughters pin-pricked and earthbound. 

 

By creating the actual poems of her fictional poet, Enright lets her readers enter the charmed circle of his vision to experience, for themselves, the magnetism of the bard until, knowing more,we read them differently. That is, we see them as duplicitous. In this way, the poems become crucibles, holding not only the character of the poet, but the anger and hurt the women feel. It is an intensity that makes all of it—the story, the poems, the characters—feel charged and active. More exciting, the poems give Nell the tools she needs to resist the family myth of the golden tongued bard and see the world with fresh, ordinary, non-literary eyes.

 

What this novel models for me as a writer is that the actual products or structures a character creates—poems, paintings, spreadsheets—could add a different kind of texture to the narrative, but also, on their own, become yet another way for the reader to feel the vitality of the character.
 
Enright, Anne. The Wren, The Wren. New York:  W.W. Norton, 2023.      

Just Another Family by Lori Ostlund in The New England Review, Vol. 44.3

 

In the most recent volume of the New England Review, I was stopped in my tracks by a novella by Lori Ostlund called "Just Another Family," which starts out with a great deal of humor and arrives at a deadly serious, gut clenching stand-off that leads to a wholly unanticipated ending. It's such an astonishing and outstanding story I want to examine what makes it successful.

 

Sybil has been estranged from her birth family for many years and when she returns to her childhood home in rural Minnesota after the death of her father, she is faced with the reality that her mother can't accept her daughter's coming out as a lesbian. She shows her inability to accept it by vetoing language. She can't say the word or accept even the more minor linguistic changes that her daughter exhibits. "She was sure that I was saying soda to bother her because she said there was no way a person could grow up saying pop and then find herself one day just thinking soda" (48).

 

But pop is the least of it. The Bibles and firearms that populate her parents' house become the symbols of the chasm between them. Yet "Just Another Family" is not a story about confronting differences; instead, it becomes the much more interesting story about a woman confronting her own self-loathing so that she can, at last, accept how her upbringing has shaped her.  This is the story's overall intention, yet on the ground, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it spins a deliciously dark humor that draws a reader in and then keeps her there in a state of laughter and curiosity.

 

The fun begins with the opening line, spoken by Sybil, our first-person narrator: "My father spent the last years of his life discontinent" (48). It's a sentence that looks and sounds like it means something but only confounds until we reach the next line: "He'd always had trouble with prefixes."

 

The same pattern, bewilderment to understanding, happens in the final two lines of the first paragraph: "The day after he died, I entered my parents' house—the house I grew up in—to the smell of piss, the humid night air thick with it. 'It's the mattress,' my mother explained, and I said, well, then the mattress has to go" (48).

 

The dual nature of reality, that we can move quickly from bewilderment to understanding, is explored here, mostly through the eyes of Rachel, Sybil's partner, who is the next to arrive at the house in Minnesota. Rachel comes from a liberal-leaning east coast family and is incredulous when confronted with the various techniques the people in Sybil's family have adopted for avoiding not only confrontation but simple conversation. These include prayer, guns, stashing crying babies in ovens, attempting fratricide in various ways, and hiding under beds. These avoidance habits are the techniques Sybil herself has learned; they form the stories she has grown up with. But Rachel doesn't find any of this easy to accept or understand. "How is it possible for a family to have two stories about eating glass" (59)? The idea that they think guns will keep them safe leaves her incredulous.  Rachel tells their friends back east, "It's the most foreign place I've ever been that does not require a passport" (61). And even though anger avoidance is what has formed Sybil, she has moved away from it in her life with Rachel, so when she returns, she is newly shocked all over again. Yet, when she takes the piss-soaked mattress to the dump, which is also the place her father took her for target practice, she retrieves her father's rifle and bullets from the pickup and fires at the mound of unwanted things. "That is the person I am here. When I'm not here, I tell myself that the person I am here is not who I really am. Rachel is the only person who knows both, and that is no small thing" (55).

 

Each family member's method of avoidance is so distinct and memorable that, in the reader's mind, each character is associated with the thing they wield in place of talk. Sybil's mother uses the Bible; for her, its mere physical presence says it all. We associate Sybil's sister with a pillow she once used to try to smother the infant sister she was jealous of, and Sybil herself with the gun she once pointed at her sister and then later fires at the dump. We associate their father with piss, not only in the mattress, but in the soda bottles arranged underneath it. In a family that doesn't speak, things become powerful and the author uses them to great advantage. In the same way other writers deploy gesture and dialogue, Ostlund deploys objects to define and distinguish her many characters.

 

At the end, when everything slips suddenly from casual black humor to a true threat, our narrator finds the release she has been looking for.

 

"This is what it means to have a vertical history: your family arrives in a place and stays, and everything gets built on top of itself so that the dump where you take the mattress might also be the dump where your father took the crockpot all those years earlier, which might also be the dump where your partner, watching you with a rifle pressed to your shoulder, thinks that she has had enough.

 

She did not actually say that she had had enough. What she said was 'I don't understand you people.' What she meant was that I was one of them" (63).

 

But by the last page, after her scare, Sybil finds the ability to move from self-loathing to self-acceptance in a manner that is wholly unexpected and deeply satisfying for the reader.

 

For people who don't have words, objects are given power. "Just Another Family" shows us the way they become formidable.

 

 

Ostlund, Lori. "Just Another Family" New England Review 44.3 (2023): 48-77.

"Half Spent" by Alice McDermott

 

Every year I read The Pushcart Prize, one of three annual anthologies that contains a selection of writing published in magazines and journals. The Pushcart Prize combines stories, poems, and essays in one volume and unlike the others, its focus is on small presses. Not only is it a good way to discover new work, it's also an efficient means of getting a sense of the many different journals in the literary landscape. Every year I find a knock-out story and in the 2023 Pushcart it was "Half Spent," by Alice McDermott, originally published in the Sewanee Review, a story that beautifully manipulates the reader as it sets up a classic reversal. The first time I read it, not only was I unprepared for the surprise, but I didn't expect to be dropped into a space that offered the renewal of tears.

 

"Half Spent" is about a memorial party the third person narrator and his two siblings arrange for their deceased mother in the house where she lived until her death. During their childhood, the New Jersey neighborhood was strictly white, middle class, and conventional, but now it is home to gay couples and foreign-born families, all of whom their mother had enthusiastically welcomed to the street. These neighbors are the friends who come to pay their last respects.

 

The gathering also includes an Ethiopian woman, named Aida, who lived in the house and cared for their mother in her last years. Though their mother loved Aida, even making her children promise that she could stay rent-free until she found another position, the three siblings are troubled by the additional presence of Aida's niece and brother who seem to have moved in, and the siblings wonder if they are being taken advantage of. This suspicion forms an undercurrent of distrust that runs, sotto voce, through the preparations and the reader understands that it, and not their mother's passing, has become the focus that consumes them as they prepare for the party:

 

"Back in the hallway, he felt an objection rising wordlessly to his throat. He glanced into his old bedroom, his and his brother's, the room where Aida now stayed. There was a large suitcase opened on the floor. Men's clothes, jeans and shirts, and a tossed belt. Thomas's of course. Impulsively, he crossed the hall to the room that had been his sister's. The door was mostly closed but not shut, and he put his fingertips to it, slowly pushing it open. A young woman, perhaps twenty, was sitting at the foot of what had been his sister's bed. She wore a short skirt, her legs stretched out before her. She was barefoot, although there was a tumbled pair of red high heels on the faded shag carpet. She was looking at her phone. She was dark-skinned, thin and wiry. She wore a bright blue head wrap. There was a colorful leather satchel at her feet, clothes erupting from it" (277).

 

The story trains us to read this description through the judging eyes of their long-deceased father, who raised his three children to follow his rational, logical approach to life and avoid the chaos of emotions, and with that bias, we find lots to cause concern.  For instance, we know the furnishings in the house are as conventional as the neighborhood used to be, and the loud colors brought into this room are out of keeping with the general tone. Not only has this young woman introduced color, but there is, as well, evidence of what the father might characterize as slovenliness and excess.  Just look at the verbs: clothes erupting from the satchel, tumbled high heels. It's a minor disorder, of course, but it hints at something dangerous, when taken together with her barefeet, short skirt, her "thin and wiry" frame. McDermott has skillfully deployed tropes of racism, and the reader wonders, is she a drug addict? It's a brilliant manipulation: at this point in the story even the reader distrusts Aida's intentions.

 

How has that happened, given our glimpses of Aida's tender care and loving nature? It happens through casual, seemingly neutral descriptions like this one: "He saw Bettina emerge from the hallway at the other end of the room, wobbling and long-legged in her high heels. He saw her greet another Black couple—who were they?—the woman in a bright green dress, the man in a brown suit, a pale blue shirt, and plaid tie" (278).

 

Our attention is directed to colors once again, and there's no need to tell us how improper they are for a memorial because we see them out of the narrator's eyes. What lingers here, is Bettina, Aida's niece, "wobbling" as she enters the room. This small detail firms up our impression of her—drugs or drink is the unspoken, mostly unconscious thought we grab from it.

 

The narrative voice has such authority we are dutiful in this way, bending easily to the racist clichés McDermott has prepared for us. But this is the trap. We fall in willingly because we think we recognize what's going on.

 

I'm going to stop here because the reversal that upends everything must be a surprise. Read this story.  And if you want to learn more about the terms recognition and reversal, go to "Poetics," a slim volume by Aristotle that lays it all out.

 

McDermott, Alice. "Half Spent." 2023 Pushcart Prize XLVII. Ed. Bill Henderson. New York: W.W. Norton, 2023. 267-82.

Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

 

This novel is all voice and what a voice it is! Acerbic, irreverent, anti-everything but mostly anti-male, it is also witty, funny and very, very smart. It's the voice of a young woman who is judgmental and impatient and, quite surprisingly, she can see herself with the same objective clarity she applies to others, and that is what turns this insufferable person into someone the reader enjoys.

 

The voice belongs to Nell, a PhD student at Columbia who is the narrator of this first-person account addressed to Joan, a woman who teaches in the biology department and guides Nell's research in a program focused on finding antibodies for poisonous plants. Nell is infatuated with Joan while Joan is, at best, grateful for Nell's availability as an assistant she can depend on, but overall, is cold, distant, and preoccupied even though, in Nell's words, "For five years I have been your smaller self, your near peer, your sane challenger, your favorite" (6). When the program is shut down after a fellow student dies from ingesting toxins from a plant, Nell must continue the research on her own.

 

What appears, at first, to be a novel with a biological theme, as Nell searches for viable antidotes to the same plant that poisoned her peer, develops into a wry and dark reveal of hetero and homosexual lusts between the men and women who surround our narrator while she, herself, looks on from an asexual and deeply scornful vantage point on the outside. That gives her seething wit lots of room for serious play among a bed that suddenly appears, toxic plants that get ingested, confessions of hopeless love, and a forbidden glimpse of a scorching kiss between a man and woman.

 

While the voice is lyrical and obsessive, the tone is a mixture of directness and innocence, and from the first page to the last, the narrative advances briskly, abounding in assertions, uttered by Nell, to Joan, the specific person she is addressing through much of the novel:

 

"Anybody should punch anybody in the face with beauty, at any time, without getting punched back by a penis" (33). Nell is observing two people talking, one a young, newly-enrolled female student, the other an older male staff member who happens to be Joan's philandering husband. Nell watches him salivate over this beautiful woman while he answers her question about laundry options.

 

"Junior met Veronica on the steps of [the Metropolitian] museum, married her, missed Tom's birth at McCloskey's Bar, and died shortly thereafter of liver disease. Tom doesn't drink for that reason and lives instead in the self-intoxicated state of medieval unicorn daydreaming, his substitute vice" (40).  Nell is speaking here about Tom, her ex-boyfriend, and his parents. This is an example of how Nell's casual observations always strike a note of wisdom and here, the wisdom I find is equating dreaminess, or the tendency to avoid grounded, practical pursuits, with the addiction of alcohol.

 

"I looked at Carlo and felt his brain operated inwardly—it wasn't love for others that fed him, it was a kind of problem solving that left him feeling clean and actual" (65). The idea that a brain, probably the most hidden and inscrutable part of the human anatomy, can operate in an inward, or outward way is preposterous, but the beauty of this phrase is that it makes perfect abstract sense because it describes so evocatively the kind of maniacal and aggressive problem solving that often is intrusive. For instance, later in the novel, when Carlo learns that Nell sleeps on the floor of her apartment because she doesn't have a bed, he buys her one and has it delivered to Joan's address, where it will become a prop.

 

"'Excuse me,' Mendelson said neatly, his pranayama-trained low blood pressure boiling somewhere deep under his skin" (151). Mendelson only appears once, so he is never developed as a rounded character, but as in the previous sentence, Dinerstein avoids cliché because pranayama-trained is so very specific and the wry tone gives it humor. It is another physical impossibility (that boiling blood pressure), yet it is magnificently evocative of a certain type of person.

 

Here is where the bed becomes useful: "We knew the dance. We knew every step of the dance. I had no idea bodies could memorize anything so well. We were terrible and inebriated and the plastic-wrapped mattress was less grounding than the surface of the moon but it was the deluxe moment when your external life sees your internal life and therefore sees you at your best. The Hindi lyrics I'd heard hundreds of times burst from my lips like a formula" (156). I'll end with this one because it gives me so much pleasure. Rounded characters, as opposed to flat characters, always contain contradictions, just as real people do.  Nell has been a consistently judgmental observer up to this point, but her behavior at this party (where the kiss was glimpsed) is completely surprising, though believable.  The party is at Joan's house where Nell, Carlo, Tom, and Nell's good friend Mishti have gathered. At this point, the reader knows that Nell and Mishti are fans of Bollywood and have spent many afternoons together watching the popular Indian movies. When the mattress arrives, in the middle of the party, Carlo drops it down onto the floor, and Nell and Mishti spontaneously start to dance on the top of it, mimicking the moves they know so well from the movies, singing some kind of Bollywood anthem.  And it is so true that a "deluxe moment" is when a person can take a chance and reveal an unknown part of her life to people who only know her from the outside, that is, with her clothes on. Knight touches on something very dear to me, basically, that dancing expresses a person's private aspirations (i.e. to inhabit the music, to fling off the stiff and awkward outside self) and for that reason, it is immensely revealing of the naked, private self to people who know you only as a clothed and circumspect person.

 

So, what can be learned from this voice-heavy novel? What I take away is that voice alone can drive narrative because, after all, voice is character distilled down to the essential. The other bit that the examples I've chosen illustrate, is humor. I've mentioned this several times and want to offer an insight now that I've come to the end of my remarks. What's apparent to me is that when the voice is this extreme and serious, this honest and to the point, it becomes very funny, almost in spite of itself.  And this kind of accidental humor, appearing regularly in sentences like the ones I've quoted, is glorious.
 
 
 Knight, Rebecca Dinerstein. Hex. New York: Penguin, 2021.

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

 

TransAtlantic is a novel with a generous reach, but a hidden purpose.  This is what makes it a powerful reading experience. I am calling it an experience because it's a novel you will read slowly, enjoying its design on all levels: structure, character, sentence.  McCann is an unusual storyteller because he trusts that the reader will meet him halfway; this means that for the purpose of creating mystery and suspense he keeps the book's intentions hidden until close to the end.  It's a withholding that builds momentum because the reader has to wait to see the connections between disparate characters and time periods.  It's rare to find an author willing to make this gamble on the reader's patience, especially in this era of publishing where the marketplace is full of novels that announce their intentions in the first few pages.  But his previous novel, Let the Great World Spin, won the national book award, so McCann was certainly well-positioned for taking a risk. 

 

Like Let the Great World Spin, TransAtlantic is composed of long chapters that appear, at first, to be separate and discreet, each one introducing a new character.  The difference is that in Let the Great World Spin, all of the characters live in New York City in the twenty first century while in TransAtlantic the narrative is more restless.   It jumps through the years from 1919 to 2012, skipping between Ireland, Newfoundland, and Missouri as characters travel back and forth across the Atlantic.  Some of the characters are fictional and some are actual personages, and all of them are deeply compelling.

 

In the first chapter we meet Alcock and Brown, the men who made the first transatlantic flight in a two-seater, open cockpit, converted WW I bomber. In chapter two, we meet Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth century writer and orator who crossed the Atlantic multiple times to speak about the lives of enslaved Africans in the southern U.S., enlisting support for the cause of Abolition.  There is a chapter devoted to Senator George Mitchell, the man appointed by Clinton as the Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, who over two years of negotiations, was finally able to pass the Good Friday Accords, an agreement that began the peace process that ended sectarian violence.

 

Among the fictional characters woven throughout these different narratives is a timid Irish maid named Lily, a survivor of poverty and abuse, who is inspired by Douglass' presence in the household where she works to make a clean break from servitude by purchasing passage aboard a ship bound for the U.S.  Outlasting disease and hunger in the steerage compartment and then, on land, outlasting the horrors of caring for wounded civil war soldiers, she marries a good, hard-working man and has a large family. Decades later, her daughter and granddaughter make the crossing back to Ireland where her great granddaughter will live through the Troubles. 

 

Throughout the novel, McCann lets us wonder what links one character to another.  Was there more besides inspiration and a long-distance infatuation between Lily and Frederick Douglass?  And what's the connection between Lily's progeny and George Mitchell?  McCann trusts his readers to be patient.  And we are, because in each section we are privy to the complications in the character's rich inner and outer life.  We witness their most private thoughts, from moments of shame and terror to occasional happiness.  We see Emily, Lily's only daughter, rise above the patronizing actions of the man who runs the newspaper where she first works as a journalist, and then we see her at a moment that is free from political tension of any kind as she sets pen to paper:

 

"Emily Ehrlich survived not by theory or formula, but by certain moments of ease when she felt herself at full tilt, a sprinting, hurdling joy.  Lost in a small excelsis" (192).

 

It's rare to see this kind of free-form, bubbling happiness expressed so directly, and as we read on, the fragmented sentences describing her writing process (I've italicized them) invite our participation:

 

"The best moments were when her mind seemed to implode. It made a shambles of time. All the light disappeared. The infinity of her inkwell. A quiver of dark at the end of the pen.

 

Hours of loss and escape. Insanity and failure"(192).

 

Because we must finish the thoughts, something we do quickly, without even noticing, the narrative distance closes, pulling us into the character's orbit. It's a technique McCann uses often and to great effect.

 

Each chapter is narrated in the third person, but it is the unexpected first person voice of Lily's great granddaughter, Hannah, that closes the novel. Through a mysterious letter in Hannah's possession, she sees the overall shape of all the events the novel brings together, each of which, in some way, touches her life: "The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments…" (252).

 

This coming to daylight for the reader, at the very end, is a glorious moment.  For this reader there were spontaneous tears, a glow of happiness.That emotional reaction is the cumulative effect of the narrative's ongoing reticence about its purpose.

 

That reticence allowed me to become fully involved, waiting, watching, sifting the clues. Early in the novel, Lily's granddaughter, Hannah's mother, stops Brown on the stairs in a hotel on the morning of his harrowing flight, and hands him a letter written by her mother. What is that about, I wondered.  Four pages later I learned that on Alcock and Brown's transatlantic flight there was a bag of mail travelling by air for the first time from one continent to another. The letter doesn't get opened until a hundred years later, and what it contains is the mystery of this last section.

 

It is human impatience that demands answers, solutions, and summaries that deliver the final meaning.  But McCann shows us, over and over, that waiting will reveal more because there is never only one simple meaning.   The actions that people take, more than the words they speak, are where the significance lies.

 

Lily, who knew Frederick Douglass lifted weights in the privacy of his room at the Jennings household where she was a maid, wanted to feel the freedom and independence that he spoke about. That desire takes her to a new land where her strength is tested again and again as the years slip by. Even when her husband and two of her sons are crushed to death by huge blocks of falling ice, Lily doesn't give up. She knows she will have to run the ice business herself with the help of her remaining children. "She woke Tomas first, then the other two. They stepped out into the night, down towards the barn, their breath making cloudshapes against the dark. 'First of all, we'll get the wagons ready,' she said. 'Make sure the horses are fed'" (182).   It's the same determination we see in Alcock and Brown, Frederick Douglass, and George Mitchell, all of them facing terrible odds but persevering.

 

I wouldn't have read TransAtlantic if I hadn't walked down a street in my Brooklyn neighborhood one spring morning. Someone had placed it out on the sidewalk with some other books for people to take. On the flyleaf, the previous reader had made a list of the characters that appear in each chapter.  It seems he or she was as intrigued by the novel's design as I was. It's hard to imagine how it could have ended up on the sidewalk if the reader had been that involved, but who knows. In any case, I was the lucky recipient.
 
McCann, Colum. TransAtlantic. New York: Random House, 2013.