Suzanne Berne’s “The Ghost at the Table” was described as “a crash course in sibling rivalry.” It is the tale told by younger sister Cynthia, a single writer, who is invited to spend Thanksgiving with her perfect sister, Frances, in her lovingly-restored New England home, along with Frances’s husband and two grown daughters. Already tense family interactions are strained to the breaking point when Frances springs a surprise on Cynthia: the fact that she has also invited their estranged father. The story is told through the eyes of Cynthia, who relates past family dramas to include her suspicions that her father, possibly aided by her sister Frances, had a hand in killing their bedridden and ailing mother. The first part of the book reads more like a mystery, as we try to piece together the past, provided only in glimpses, through Cynthia’s recollections, juxtaposed with family concerns going on in the house in the present, as the family prepares for the holiday. And there is no shortage of family dysfunction in the past or present, as marital infidelity, alcoholism, “cutting”, eating disorders, and a host of other mental illnesses are hinted at or observed by Cynthia. But then, the story seems to turn on its reader, and we start to doubt Cynthia’s reliability as a narrator– her ability to discern the truth of what she sees, and how she has interpreted the past. I personally enjoy the “unreliable narrator” technique, and this shift would have been compelling if masterfully played out, but instead, I felt cheated as a reader and a little bit angry with author Berne. So many threads of the narrative were never resolved or even re-visited to attempt to provide a solution. They were just dropped. What are we to believe, that Cynthia was totally unreliable in all her experiences? And even so, she would have gone over them in her own mind to try to resolve them. Suzanne Berne is talented writer who is able to paint a picture of domestic life so realistic the reader feels they are in the room, at the table, observing the drama unfold. She has created compelling and interesting characters, set them in motion around a complex and compelling plot (the possible murder of the mother), and then leaves us hanging in the end. Maybe I have just read too many mysteries lately and need the closure, but I get the sense that Berne had no idea how to end the novel, and it feels as if she just stopped writing when there was so much more to tell.
Monthly Archives: May 2013
What was it Einstein said about the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing the same way but expecting different results? Well, let’s apply this definition of insanity to writers. We keep writing and sending our work out, but not getting published. It is no wonder the iconic image of a writer is a gin-soaked loner, haunting a garrett apartment, tapping out his (or her) masterpiece alone… Writing is a lonely business, but eventually even the most dedicated and successful writer has to engage with others…and that’s the really depressing part of it all. Rejection. No one deals with rejection well no matter what they tell you. Every time you wrap up a story or poem and send it out to the agent, publisher, or editor, a little bubble of hope forms in your chest, buoying you along all the weeks and months you sit waiting by your email for that wondrous message: “We love your work! We’ll publish it right away!” Instead, you receive a tersely worded form letter, informing you that the work just does not fit in with our needs at this time. Or, worse yet, you are told in no uncertain terms, if you don’t hear from us, the answer is no. So, any other reasonable person having met with such rejection of their work time after time would give up, find a new job, take up crocheting or join the French Foreign Legion. They would not keep pouring their souls onto paper for others to judge and dismiss, an experience not dissimilar from a blind date who, upon meeting you and hearing your inner most secrets, declares you boring, unattractive, and without any redeeming value. So, you may be wondering at this point, if you are still reading, what has prompted this scree? Well, today after a long wait of six months, I received a “form note”rejection for some work that I really thought had merit. Note to the wise: do not check your email for such messages before driving home on the beltway. Back to the story… I was disappointed, angry, discouraged, and pitying myself pretty much in that order. I arrived home with the firm resolve to quit. Enough. I’m done; I’m not a masochist after all. I won’t give them my finely crafted words to piss all over! So there! The same thoughts I am sure every writers has had at one time in their career…(except the few freakish ones who write a best seller right out of the gate and are negotiating movie rights along with merchandising tie ins.) Back to reality: But in the midst of my self-pitying wallow, I thought how fitting it was that I had just finished reading Laura Oliver’s work on writing called “The Story Within.” Besides the usual writing craft advice, Oliver explores another side of writing: why we keeping doing it in spite of the lack of rewards, recognition, or whatever it is we think we are seeking. She explores the joy of writing, and how to dig deeper and craft the true story which all people want told. And she is right. It is a book I highly recommend for any writers’ shelf. Also, another little message from the cosmos permeated my bubble of self-pity this evening through another email: a notice that I had won a give-away prize from my comment on a writers’ blog. It was a nice little compensation package for the nasty rejection, and it left me feeling as if the writing world is perhaps not such a cold and heartless wasteland….that there might be some sort of cosmic system of checks and balances that even it all out. So, I vowed to quit writing, and I will… for today.
Set during a season of drought on the Minnesota prairie in the late 1980’s, Thomas Maltman’s “Little Wolves” weaves a story about a farmer who is trying to make sense of a heinous crime committed by his son, and a pastor’s wife, expecting her first child, who is drawn to the town in order to find answers to a mysterious past. Award-winning author of “The Night Birds“, Maltman spins a tapestry of a tale woven through with imagery of the hard-scrable prairie farm life, the folklore of ancient Norse mythology, the commonality of the American small town, and the mysticism of Christianity. It is full of compelling characters, both fallen saints and redeemed sinners, and driven by a compelling murder mystery. I loved this book, and am looking for more of his works. My only caution: if you like a mystery where all the loose threads are neatly tied up, you may feel the ending a bit unsatisfying.
In the mailbox today I found a wonderful surprise: a gift of a book, signed by the author, from a friend who had moved back home to Maine. It turns out I had discovered a great, new author whose specialty was writing mystery/thrillers which take place in Maine. I turned her on to the writer, and lo and behold, he was at a local book signing (and I was the lucky recipient). The gift book is one I have not read: “Bad Little Falls” by Paul Doiron. The beauty of Doiron’s writing is that he has the ability to create a sense of place to the point that the locale is nearly a character in itself, but he does not sentimentalize Maine. He can describe the beauty and awe that is Maine, but also the grit, and poverty, and cruelty of nature. My friend, Margaret, who went to hear the author speak, wrote me an interesting note about his readership: Doiron, who had just given a talk at a local high school (kudos for him doing that) is credited with getting more young men to read, because before they were just not seeing anyone like themselves in most literature. Writers who set their stories in Maine are often times seasonal visitors, who focus on the pretty, coastal areas. Doiron’s newly-won readers had no problem with his portrayal of the poorer, rougher side of the Down Easters. His stories all feature a main game warden, Mike Bowditch, who has had his share of troubles in life. I read an earlier work of Doiron’s, “The Poacher’s Son” which provided the background on this character’s dark upbringing. All that aside, the author is capable of spinning a good mystery, full of well-rounded characters and always an interesting setting. Looking forward to diving into “Bad Little Falls.”