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Monday, September 21, 2009

Outside In

The cover attracted me the first time I picked up the book early this spring, and for that matter the second and the third. A redheaded pre-teen girl with wet hair leans her shoulders over the wooden planks of a weathered dock, the bottom half of her body swallowed in green water. Readers of Middle Passages know how many of the photographs I’ve included in this blog involve the ocean. To remark on the obvious: the sea compels me--so I was fated to reach for this novel: The Condition, by Jennifer Haigh, while visiting our local bookstore.

However, after reading the synopsis, I shuddered and put the missive down, unwilling to fork over my not hard-earned cash on such dreary subject matter. On each subsequent visit that cover roped me in and I’d repeat the performance, picking up the book, reading the blurb, then returning it to the “Recommended Reading” table.

Fast forward to the library last week as I perused the two double-sided bookshelves allotted to “Fiction--New” and guess what my hand pulled out. Consistency, thy name is Liza. Once again I winced as I read the summary, the crux of which goes like this:

“Twenty years after Gwen’s diagnosis with Turner’s syndrome—a genetic condition that has prevented her from maturing, trapping her forever in the body of a child, all five family members are still dealing with the fallout.”

This time however, we were talking the library—free reading—the only investment, time. Resigned, I tucked the book on my hip with the other novel I’d selected and wandered to the mahogany check-out desk.

Finally, several months after first encountering it, I’m reading The Condition and all I can say is that I’m sorry I waited because the language has snagged me and now I'm the end of a line flopping like a helpless fish. Choice is no longer an option--I simply have to go where this author leads me.

Somewhere over the last many months I read a quote along the lines of: “There is nothing new to write about, only the need to write about it in a new way.” In describing a disagreement a character has with her sister, Haigh does just that as she explains:

“She was often blindsided by how acerbic her sister could be, how in the middle of a pleasant conversation Martine could deliver a zinger that stopped her cold: the backhanded compliment, the ripe apple with the razor inside.”
Her description had me holding the apple, just picked, red and crisp and I bit into tart sweetness--the juices flowing from the back of my mouth—until reaching the razor.

The story begins at a summer home on Cape Cod, which Haigh portrays as “A house with wide windows and doors, a house meant to be flung open.” Anyone reading could imagine that house, you know the one, the Victorian shingled grey, situated above the seawall, cotton curtains blowing in the open upper windows, a home with a wrap-around porch circling its waist--a wooden door squealing and slaming as it chases the occupants out.

Later, Haigh draws a picture of another home:
“To Paulette the house was not a simple investment. The place was like a beloved grandfather, mute and broken, plagued by a host of hidden ailments, but still sentient”

and her reader sees the old man, his age spotted hands placed on each bony knee, eyes fluttering as he naps on a shabby tweed recliner.

I’m only a third of the way through, but reading all this, I see the talent it takes to sculpt a story—the steady hands, a sharp chisel--a fine eye for detail. It may have been the cover design that compelled me to open the book, but the real art resides on each page. With no water colors or oils, charcoal or pastels, the tale relies on an intriguing blend of language, shifted, stacked, rearranged, laid out in patterns destined to captivate. I’m inhaling this writer’s ability in gluttonous mouthfuls, swishing the words from side to side to ensure optimum taste.

As I swallow, I understand that a book like this touches down to the core of me and shows me why love to write.

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

This is a REVIEW!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am so going out to buy that. Like at lunch! Fantastic. You should email the author. really.