Sunday, June 10, 2007

Of memory and empathy

Childhood is tricky territory to handle in fiction. One always asks the obvious question: How can an adult writer plumb the depths of feeling that only childhood bestows on us since it is that time in our lives when nothing is contaminated by knowledge? However, childhood has provided rich saplings for writers of fiction. As I read Maxine Swann's nostalgia-laden Flower Children (Riverhead, $21.95, 210 pages), I was reminded of the intensity of feeling I experienced when I read Anita Desai's short story "Games at Twilight" as a child.

What a writer Swann is! She captures with an unerring eye for detail, the little sights and sounds of four children growing up in rural Pennsylvania. Lu, Maeve, Tuck and Clyde are the children of a hippie couple who bring in new partners every now and then and do crazy things like examining their children's stools. Against this backdrop, Swann narrates the process of the children's growing up from the tenderness of childhood to the self-awakening of teenage. The book is an extended collection of several short stories that hold their own as individual pieces. Jumping two years in the lives of the children with every new chapter, the reader gets glimpses into the guilty pleasures of the first sexual arousal and the painful realization of the irreclaimability of one's childhood.

The most poignant is the final story, "Return" during which the children visit their mother's house as young adults. They invent memories and fight to repossess games that had seemed cruel back then. They recollect joys which were acute and losses that were severe. Today, they are ready for all this and more, ready to take on the world with the gift of knowledge weighing them down, and yet, they miss all this so. Swann writes:

Certain things make sense now. Others are still baffling. They pick up a book that baffled and intrigued them, D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, and suddenly it makes sense. Suddenly all kinds of things make sense. And others still don't and never will.

Pick this book if you wish to be transported to a time when everything was strange, yet lovable.

More are the wonders awaiting you in Amity Gaige's The Folded World (Other Press, $23.95, 300 pages). Strands of memory and thought intersect in this sensitive tale of a social worker, Charlie Shade, and his wife, Alice. The idealist Charlie has devoted his life to the service of the mentally ill. But his passion for his work begins to cost him his family life when he gets overtly involved in the well being of Opal, a mentally disturbed woman shaken by her father's suicide. As Charlie tells Alice, "It's [Opal's story] got a happy ending. It's about finding love and kindness in unlikely places." In Charlie, Gaige has wielded a fully developed character with whom we come to empathize.

Then there's Alice, a woman who has successfully escaped the droning misery of her small-town past and made a life for herself with Charlie. There is nothing patently grand about her, yet in describing the motions of her life, Gaige demarcates her individuality as clearly as any other's in fiction.

Gaige has revealed that she would read a couple of pages of To The Lighthouse every time she sat down to write this book. No wonder then, the similarity with Woolf's style and themes is palpable: The decipherable charge of emotion breaking into a sudden spasm of speech that marks a return to the here and now from the sharpness of sporadic thought. The inner dialogue of Opal reminds you of Septimus's in Mrs. Dalloway:

And then, for the first time that morning, she looked at him [Charlie]. Really looked at him…He was like a childhood beau from a childhood she never had. Temporarily, the thought of him being her childhood beau made her cheerful, but then like a passing shadow she became morbid and hated him. She broke up with him in the childhood that she never had. She struck him on the head with a hammer and he covered his bloody face in the childhood she never had. She marched away from him leaving him to die never knowing him. And then she ran back to tend his face but he was not there because neither was the childhood.

Gaige's second, this misty revelation of a book is an inspired homage to Virginia Woolf.


From Washington Times.

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