by Joan Silber
Joan Silber’s most recent book is the story collection In My Other Life. She is the author of the novels In the City and Household Words, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Voice Literary Supplement, and the Paris Review. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. Publisher:New York: St. Martin’s, 2000 288 pp., $23.95
Place soaks deeply into the fiction of certain writers–Morocco for Paul Bowles, Paris for Colette, the American suburbs for John Cheever, Italy and India for E.M. Forster–and their work is hard to imagine without the questions raised by those settings. Rural Maine, flinty, unglamorous, and elemental, is the landscape of Cynthia Thayer’s second novel. (Her first was Strong for Potatoes, also set in the Pine Tree State.) The story opens with a man waking in a cabin to hear freezing rain pelt his roof. ”He knows it is dripping down the shingles,icing the windows shut, covering the trees. He hears the snap, loud like a rifle shot, a snap from deep in the woods, the snap of tree limbs laden with ice. … Each time he opens his eyes, the room is still there around him, his clothes still draped on nails pounded into the wall, windows intact but iced on the outside allowing only slanted dawn light through, onto the bare floor. “ A tone has been set–a bare, spare, and orderly atmosphere has been evoked–that flavors this novel throughout.
Place is not only geography but a system of values, and sober self-reliance is at home here. Peter, the narrator, is a man who manages in solitude. Since his wife and children were killed in a fire some twenty years before, he has lived a quiet and bleak existence in what was once their vacation cabin, farming for himself and tending sheep on a nearby island. On this icy morning, a young woman with a black eye shows up in his yard. Eight months pregnant, she needs a place to stay. Elaine, the woman, is sweet but determined, and Peter’s initial protests give way, bit by bit, before her
obvious distress. He happens to have a neighbor, an elderly Passamaquoddy woman, who is a skilled midwife and will deliver the baby. Elaine’s dilemma soon emerges. She is a Jehovah’s Witness and is Rh negative. She has miscarried one child, and if this second baby is born Rh positive, the infant may need a total blood transfusion, which is against her religious beliefs. (“I’ve looked into it. … It would be against the will of Jehovah. ’Any soul who eats any blood, that soul must be cut off from his people.’ Leviticus 7:27.”) Suspense hovers around two areas of the story.
What will Elaine decide about the transfusion, can her baby live? And will Peter and Elaine get together to become a couple? The first question is decided a little more than halfway through the book. I will not spoil things for the reader by giving this away. As novelist Francine Prose argued in the New York Times Book Review this summer, a reviewer who spends time on plot shouldn’t then act as if the pleasures of plot don’t count and secrets can be leaked.
The first half of Thayer’s book feels–not unpleasantly–like a late-nineteenth-century “problem play ” in which the scenes ride on a single moral conflict. Elaine is always an appealing figure: she creates meals of wine-spiked chicken soup and lemon meringue pie out of Peter’s meager larder, speaks lovingly of the infant she’s carrying, and explains calmly about her faith. But she is ready to do something–sacrifice her child–which all the other characters are horrified by. The narrative does not push these conflicts as hard as it might. A cautious distance is kept from the faith of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and there is not much detail about the church’s teachings or customs. Peter at one point says that it’s “a lot of crap,” but that’s as much argument as anyone gives. There is a tacit opinion among the characters that one respects Elaine for being so principled while disagreeing with those principles.
As a reader, I was happy to be in the company of a principled heroine. But after a century of atrocities committed in the name of ideas, I was a little uneasy with the light touch on these issues. The story handles its delicate subject with considerable judiciousness and balance, without pressing anyone to think too hard about it. Not for a grown man
More successful is Thayer’s treatment of the blossoming attraction between Peter and Elaine. Peter’s resistance is nicely chronicled from within; Elaine has to win him over, a little like Heidi softening her grandfather’s hard heart on the mountain. This warmth of feeling on Peter’s part becomes more pointedly sexual as the book goes on. Peter is well drawn as a man stuck in grief. In one of the book’s best inventions, he plays every morning with a dollhouse, whose dolls act the roles of his lost family.
“The boydoll has only one sneaker. It isn’t really a sneaker because Peter has never been able to find one to fit the dolls, but he colored a doll shoe with magic marker to look like a sneaker. Only one sneaker because Nathaniel was constantly losing his sneakers. … The whole ritual is a little crazy, Peter knows, but it’s something he has done every day for years and it is comforting. He built the house for Sarah’s fourth birthday, a place to put her dolls, to place them on furniture, move them around. It was not for a grown man.”
The oddity of this is quite wonderful and is treated squarely, without condescension or lurid overemphasis. Peter’s sad self-comfort is the measure of his depth of feeling, and it seems natural to hope that he and Elaine, two damaged people, will move toward each other. Their friendship develops against a backdrop of seasonal chores, described with an exactness that is satisfying to read. In real life, the author operates an organic farm with her family in Gouldsboro, Maine, and there is a fine authority to these sections. A goat gives birth to two kids, in a long and dramatic scene that prefigures Elaine’s childbirth scene soon after and adds a layer of foreboding. A group of neighbors helps Peter round up and shear his sheep. Occasionally there is more detail than the story requires, but the color of these sections is crucial to this novel. Thayer is especially good at giving each animal its own personality, without ever stooping to cuteness: a horse kicks thunderously at its stall if the feed is a minute late, a dog howls and moans if it’s not asked to fetch wood for the stove.
Elaine takes to the rigors of farmwork with unqualified enthusiasm, although she has had a town life before. The nature of the marriage she has left behind remains mysterious, although her irate, deserted husband appears onstage several times. He seems to have hit Elaine just once–in his wrath at discovering a piece of her past she had been hiding–and he goes away when asked, unlike most violent husbands. But his dialogue consists mostly of quoted teachings about a wife’s duty to obey her husband absolutely, and these scenes offer little reason why Elaine would consider returning to him, although she keeps saying she needs time to think things over.
Elaine’s goodness is a bit of a problem in this novel. She is not dull, as good characters can be (the reason actors say they don’t like to play them), but she is idealized and somewhat opaque–a flaxen-haired beauty who is a skilled homemaker and sings ballads exquisitely. Her goodness is of an old-fashioned kind, earnest and mild and conflicted only over questions of duty. Alone, Elaine sings “I gave my love a cherry without a stone” and “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word,” not anything rowdier or written in the past thirty years. She has been sequestered quite thoroughly, it would seem. Peter’s musical passion is for bagpipes. He was once a trophy-winning competitor but has not picked up the instrument since the tragic fire killed his family. His memories of the music and his gradual approaches to playing again are detailed closely and displayed as significant signs of his healing. Somewhere north of contemporary culture
A Certain Slant of Light takes place in a notably unmodern world, which is refreshing enough to be in at first, but the chosen limits began to feel evasive as the novel drew to its close. Disturbing elements fade out of the story: Peter just gets rid of that embarrassing dollhouse, Elaine’s husband may be no more than a reasonable guy who got upset. It’s as if all knowledge of darkness within any character’s psyche is expunged. Wholesomeness irons out the more interesting tangles.
What could have been a more literary book gets a little stuck on the notion of healing. (Though a popular notion, it’s harder to end a novel with than one might think.) But it may be best to see this as a story in which two stubborn characters have their doggedness tested and tempered. Its most basic outlines show us two figures who have seized on a single point of defense and are forced by circumstance to soften. The novel also does a fine job of avoiding sentimentality in its treatment of the possible romance that might “fix” its odd couple.
What stayed with me finally was the endearing frugality of Peter, a man who’s given up underwear and telephone service, is glad he put a new roof on the outhouse last autumn, and has solar cells on his roof to power his radio. This independence is not cheerful, as the author describes it, but the resourcefulness and patience involved make their claim on our attention and are deeply interesting to read about. Some of the best writing here is about Peter when he’s alone. As the novel progresses, we are glad to see him get better, more social and awake to human pleasures, but he is more full of fresh news for the reader in his Thoreauvian solitude