Saturday, December 19, 2009

Child of My Heart -- Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott is known for crafting her stories in simple but powerful ways. Her novels are void of bells, whistles, and pretty packaging. Her prose is strong, sure and intense in its brevity; literary tricks and fancy poeticism are not necessary to carry her work. She’s a remarkable writer, one America should be quite proud to claim, and one you should give a glance at. While I was not the biggest fan of the novel I just completed, I cannot deny McDermott’s talents.

Child of My Heart (2002) is McDermott’s fifth novel. At less than 250 pages, it seems as if it would be a quick, pleasant read, but don’t let its size fool you. What remains unwritten, what McDermott cleverly places between the lines and in her readers’ heads, makes this novel quite weighty. Taking place over one summer, the novel is told from the point of view of Theresa, a beautiful fifteen year old girl caught in that awkward crevice between childhood and womanhood.

Theresa’s parents, while not wealthy, had moved out to Long Island in the hopes that their beautiful child would mingle with the rich and important, that she would be able to get a toehold in society. They pushed her services as dog-walker and babysitter on the movers and shakers, the doctors and famous artists, and her beauty and saint-like reception by children and animals alike kept her in high demand.

The novels opens, “I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist.” Daisy, the title character, is a quiet child who seems to have been forgotten in the chaos of her many siblings. Theresa has invited her to spend the summer because she understands the need for individual attention. Not long after Daisy arrives, Theresa notices the bruises. Dark and angry, they appear at the slightest touch and never seem to improve. Theresa realizes the serious implications and attempts to heal her cousin through various rituals. She does not alert her parents to the illness – she knows they will only send her home and deep in her heart, she seems to accept that Daisy’s time on earth is precious. She sets out to give her cousin the best summer imaginable.

I didn’t care for Theresa’s character. She seemed too polished, too perfect. The novel touches on her blossoming sexuality; she undresses on the beach, with her charges, and seems unaware of her teenage body until someone comments on it. After that comment, she realizes the power her sexuality grants her. The calculated way in which she loses her virginity, the start of what propels her into adulthood, was heartbreaking. As a reader, I wanted her to hold on to her innocence. (But McDermott wanted her readers to be aware that Theresa’s innocence as already at stake with Daisy’s worsening state.) She sleeps with Flora’s father, an old man, well into his 70s, whose attraction to her was carefully detailed in looks and the slightest of touches. She later finds a piece of canvas, cut from the bed she’d given herself to him on, with just the slightest smear of blood. Someone had cut it out and put it with Flora’s mother’s scarves. (Scarves that had been used to bind Flora at one point.) This scene is only a couple of sentences, but I was amazed at how powerful those sentences were – of what they said without saying.

The novel concludes after Daisy’s death, with Theresa taking three newborn rabbits into her care. These rabbits were mentioned in the first paragraph and the reader already knows their fate, they know how hopeless a cause it is. But there is something of a glimmer of hope in the face of sorrow – something McDermott manages to work into her novel seamlessly. Child of My Heart is a novel of loss, sorrow, and growing up, but it somehow manages to also be a novel of hope, release, and magic.

Child of My Heart is a sharp intake of breath followed by a shaky exhale.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The God of Animals - Aryn Kyle

There are some books that just surprise you. I’m finding more and more that this happens with the novice author and their first novel; when I finish the book, close its pages and stroke the spine, I wonder how the author can possibly top it. Zadie Smith left me with that feeling - as did Jonathan Safran Foer and Arundhati Roy. When I read a book by a first-time novelist and am so wowed, that novel and author immediately find a secure place in my heart and on my shelf. I recently added The God of Animals to my stack of loves.

Published in 2007, this first novel by Aryn Kyle touched me in a way I haven’t been touched in a quite a while. Something in her words struck a chord so deep in me that days later, I’m still reeling. I know that’s crazy talk for most of you, but for the select few true booksluts out there, you know it’s a feeling we crave with every book we open. This book made me cry. Hot tears dripped from my cheeks to the pages as Kyle broke my heart with brutal honesty and beautiful prose. This book’s haunting qualities will linger with me very many a year, impossible to forget.

Kyle’s leading lady is twelve-year-old Alice Winston. A book reviewer called her a cousin to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. I would support that connection. I also found myself thinking of Vada from My Girl. All three works are typical bildungsromans, following the maturation of a girl into a young woman. The life lessons Alice, Scout, and Vada learn about love and loss forever change their worlds and the reader/viewer witnesses a transition so relatable, they feel as if they’re suffering with them.

Alice Winston and her family live on a horse farm in Desert Valley, Colorado. Her mother is “sick” and a shut-in. (There’s a paper begging to be written about the comparisons to be drawn between the women and the horses.) Her father is a salt-of-the-earth sort, struggling to make-ends meet while still dreaming of bigger and better. Nona, her sister, the beautiful golden child, has run away to marry a rodeo star. The family is broken.

The novel opens with “Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy.” Polly was Alice’s classmate and Alice fabricates a friendship between herself and the dead girl. She carries this lie with her throughout the novel, garnering sympathy and creating a relationship with the advanced English teacher Polly had crushed on. She convinces herself they were brought together by Polly and that they are in love. It’s her first crush and Kyle fosters the relationship almost to the point of making the reader uncomfortable.

The horse farm setting is one I am unfamiliar with. I know nothing of showing, breeding, or boarding horses. But I’ll be damned if Kyle didn’t have me mucking those stalls with Alice. The world she creates is captivating. She does not romanticize it; the life is hard and brutal on the Winstons and Kyle doesn’t shy away from the dirty side of the horse world. Alice’s father buys a horse at an auction, a beautiful mare of racing stock. She is wild, untamed. Her name is Darling. He attempts to break her and fails at every turn. Alice’s grandfather insists they breed her, claiming that forcing her to stand pregnant in the hot desert heat will take all the fight out of her. When they take her to be bred, Alice watches. She grew up on the farm and breeding was just a way of life. They hobble the horse’s feet so she won’t kick. When the stud mounts her, she goes crazy, breaking the hobble and bruising the stud’s “muscle.”

“And I wondered, now that it was all over, if he had watched Darling as closely as I had. I wondered if he had seen the same look in her face when the stud climbed on top of her, if he understood what happened with the clear, centered certainty that I did: she never would have kicked if they hadn’t tied her legs” (144).

They eventually break Darling, and how she is broken effectively broke my heart.

I won’t ruin this novel for you because I want you to read it. I want you to love it. I want Aryn Kyle to find a spot in your heart and on your shelf; if she keeps writing like this, I may have found my new favorite American author.