||Turning The Screw
by Gary Draper
One OF THE MAJOR strengths of Margot Livesey`s Homework (Viking, 339 pages, $24.95 cloth), a first novel of remarkable sophistication and craft, is the evocation of place. On the narrative Sur-face, the novel`s primary setting is Edinburgh. Not only does Livesey create a credible facsimile of the Scottish capital, she invests its parts with symbolic resonance without in the least damaging the story`s flow or distracting the reader. The early images of confinement at the zoo, for example, are echoed later in both physical and psychological ways. A visit to the city`s famous camera obscura illuminates the nature and the importance of perception in the book, while it remains a plausible and interesting episode in its own right.
But at a deeper level, the landscape of this novel is the rocky, shifting terrain of failed commitment, and the tangled, often fragile relationships that are their concomitant. One step deeper, the novel`s (still wholly convincing) environment is the mind of the central character, Celia Gilchrist. For this is above all a novel about perception, and especially about the perception of evil.
At the outset of the book, Celia has a brief and unhappy affair with Lewis, and then moves into a much more satisfying relationship with Bill. But even Bill is, in some ways, a minor player: Celia`s real foil is Bill`s daughter, Jenny. Jenny may be a very likeable, ordinary girl caught in, and disturbed by, the undertow of her parents` separation. Or she may be, as Celia comes to believe, the embodiment of inborn evil. Livesey has not plagiarized Henry James`s The Turn of the Screw, but comparisons are inevitable, and by no means unflattering to Livesey.
Livesey`s central characters are all clearly defined and credible, but even her minor figures are -- like the bit players in a BBC serial -- well delineated. Her writing is clean and unobtrusive, but her major achievement is the creation of a narrative of such subtlety that the reader can experience Celia`s fears without being at all sure of their validity. The novel is full of images and incidents of foreboding; when more overt action occurs, Livesey demonstrates a gift for the horror of the mundane and the accidental.
Although the book is well structured, I found it a touch slow moving at times. The repeated alternation of tension and relaxation is effective, but after a certain point the instances of Jenny`s evil (or Celia`s paranoia) begin to lose their force, and the reader looks forward to a resolution, or at least a conclusion. A novel this strong on suspense might be forgiven if the ending were a bit of a letdown. This one isn`t. Having reread the closing paragraphs several times, I have yet to get through them without chills. Homework is a careful, disturbing novel of exceptional grace.
David Laing Dawson`s Last Rights (Macmillan, 237 pages, $19.95 cloth) is also, in part, about the perception of evil. This book is much closer to the conventional mystery story than Livesey`s but it, too, is extremely well crafted. A murder mystery set in a retirement home inevitably has a lot of potential. Death is normal here, and expected, occasionally even welcomed. the residents are chillingly helpless victims. Dawson makes the most of his choice. His central character, Henry Thornton, is a cranky, toughtalking, engaging old man. Like Livesey`s Celia, he suspects those around him of wishing -- and, very soon after that, of causing -- him harm. Unlike Celia, he takes arms against his sea of troubles, and quickly finds himself in over his head. Together with a fellow resident, the plucky, romantic-but-level-headed Dixie Brown, he undertakes to fight back.
Dawson paints a compassionate, unpatronizing view of the elderly. He writes crisp, efficient prose, and is especially inventive in the crotchety, cynical voice of Henry. He is less successful with some of the minor characters, who drift toward cliche: the overworked, sleazy doctor, the sympathetic if slightly burned-out nurse.
It`s hard to believe that this is Dawson`s first novel. The atmosphere of the home is utterly convincing, and while the book may not run quite as close to the heart as Livesey`s, its pacing is tighter and the suspense is riveting. Dawson allows the reader to enter the minds of several characters, including some who must inevitably be suspects. He writes (and plots) with sufficient skill that their thoughts are consistent with either innocence or guilt.
The book`s conclusion does not, I think, quite measure up to the intensity of the suspense that precedes it. This is less a criticism of the conclusion than it is a tribute to the Suspense. Dawson has set for himself an extremely high standard.
Bill Gaston`s Tall Lives (Macmillan, 243 pages, $19.95 cloth) is perhaps less craftsmanlike than Homework or Last Rights, but in some ways more exhilarating: the writer takes big risks, and the book moves with a kind of heroic power in spite of its flaws. The result is a tale of mythic proportions.
Del and Frank are twins, joined at the big toe at birth, and separated by their veterinarian father using a ribsaw. They are boys when we first meet them, but the book deals largely with their unhappy adulthood, and chronicles, with flashes into the past, their coming to terms with their lives and with each other. Frank is unmarried, something of a misanthrope, skipper of the "Tammy Wouldn`t Die," and a part-time writer of punk songs and housebreaker. Del, a professional football referee, is married to Mary, a social worker who (unbeknownst to Del) strips at the Yale Pub under the name of "Lil` Regina."
The book is extremely inventive throughout, with a good deal of genuine wit. Unfortunately, Gaston works so hard at grotesquerie and coincidence that the reader may sometimes he alienated. I found the book too snowy at the outset, too clever, to engage me. As it developed, however, the author`s powerful imagination and story-telling ability won me over. Despite the recurrence of situations so bizarre as to disrupt my interest and my sympathy, there are also sequences of great power: the basketball tour of Egypt, Mary`s last performance, Del`s perfect game.
The overall imaginative pattern of this hook is particularly impressive. The twinning of Del and Frank, and the working out of that pairing in narrative terms, carries power and meaning. When the book finally comes full circle, it is profoundly affecting. Tall Lives takes a while to gain Momentum, but once it`s rolling, it is very hard to Put down; once it`s finished, it is hard to forget.
Thomas King`s Medicine River (Viking Penguin, 261 pages, $24.95 cloth) is an altogether more easy-going book than Gaston`s, though in some ways it shares the common ground of the tall tale. The narrator, Will, has returned to his home of Medicine River. With I wild schemes and his woolly stories, Harlen Bigbear helps reintegrate Will into his community. Highlights include their visit to Custer`s monument, the climb to the top of the trestle bridge, and Harlen`s funeral oration -- in which he explains how life imitates basketball.
The voice behind Medicine River is good natured and relaxed, and Will is a master of understated, deadpan humour. It`s hard to resist the feeling (and, frankly, I didn`t) that the writer himself is as charming and companionable as his narrator. But although it`s played mostly for laughs, Medicine River is not mere slapstick. In the background of many chapters (and occasionally in the foreground) lurk domestic violence, alcoholism, crime, and imprisonment. And for all the dry humour, there is also a good deal of convincing, deeply felt sorrow and loss.
For the most part, the book reads more like a collection of interrelated short stories than a novel. Its nearest relative is Leacock`s Sunshine Sketches; independent pieces held together by common setting and characters, shot through with affectionate, if sometimes stinging, satire. There is little character development, though Will shows some growth in awareness. Moreover, the chapters themselves too often follow the same pattern: one story from the past intertwining with and illuminating a story from the present. On the other hand, as the novel moves amiably towards its conclusion, the reader becomes aware that King has some of Haden Bigbear`s skills as a story- teller: circling, moving by indirection, he lulls the reader into believing there are only tangents, and then everything falls into place. There is more skill -- and more magic -- in King`s story-telling than might be apparent on the surface.
Ellen Stafford`s Was That You at the Guggenheim? (Macmillan, 183 pages, $12.95 paper) seemed to me to be a story that was deeply felt, but not fully realized. The book is in four parts. The first, "Half an Hour from Love," occupies more than half the book, and is easily the novel`s strongest part. In it, the central character, Marie, falls in love with a sailor, Jay
Somers. Their on-again-off-again love story is convincingly told. When they finally part, she is desolated.
Throughout the novel`s succeeding parts, Marie seeks Jay, learns what has become of him, and finally begins to come to terms with his loss. Years pass by in the twinkling of a sentence. Too much happens that is either unexamined or undeveloped. In a latter section, for example, we discover that Marie had beer. deeply engrossed ... in the world`s problems" to consider Jay`s problems or her own, though in fact there was no evidence of this in part one, when it should have been happening. It may be that Ellen Stafford was simply trying to achieve a breadth of scale that was beyond the possibilities of this slim novel. The writing is usually satisfactory, though it sometimes depends too much on the suggestiveness of ellipses. I look forward to Stafford`s next novel: if, with a growth in her craft, she can transfer to the page some of the intense feeling that is occasionally glimpsed here, she will be a very interesting writer indeed.