by Diana Kiesners
The Skating Pond, Deborah Joy Corey's second novel, begins and ends in January, "when the weather has stolen all there is to steal and the earth looks barren under cold skies, as if waiting." It's an atmosphere saturated with loss¨from the very outset, tragedy seems a foregone conclusion. But whom will it strike, and when? The answer is: Everyone, eventually.
Corey's landscape is one of dispossession, in this case a fishing village named Stonington on the coast of Maine. In her first, award-winning novel Losing Eddie, the setting was similar. Her characters lived in the expectation of being slapped around, if not by each other, then by life. The characters in The Skating Pond seem, at first glance, to be sustained by art of one kind or another. But they are also, it turns out, wounded and inadequate in the face of life. Love unfolds in them slowly, if at all.
Elizabeth Johnson, a teenager at the beginning of the novel, chronicles her family's history. Her mother, Doreen, is a self-taught figure skater who practices on the frozen lily pond nearby; it is her means of self-expression and a release of small dissatifactions. She skates in defiance of her husband Peter, who insists that her skating will be viewed as frivolous by the hard-working community. The domineering Peter is a painter whose subject matter is limited, initially, to fishing boats¨the more bruised and battered, the better for him. His own father, it is said, was swept into the sea from a fishing boat. "If skating was my mother's toehold on youth," Elizabeth says, "then painting was Father's toehold on death."
Of the fishing village of Stonington, Elizabeth's mother says: "all things beautiful had to leave this place." Doreen has already had her opportunity for flight; once an agent for the Ice Capades saw her skating on the village pond and said she could have a career on ice. But, "Aren't we enough for you?" Peter objected. His twin predilections for protecting and controlling are oppressive. He justifies himself by claiming kinship with Captain Ahab: "In him also two different things were warring." His wife responds, "For crying out loud, Peter, how many women have read Moby Dick?"
Frequently, this is a stunning book, full of the kind of terrible beauty that can grow out of loneliness and seclusion. It is a chilly world in which nothing is without significance, neither a red mitten frozen under the ice nor the gulls' circling that portends a storm. Sometimes Corey's leaps from sentence to sentence seem to convey something transcendent, oracular, the intervening chasms suggesting so much more than words could express. The act of reading becomes dizzying, exhilarating. On other occasions the reader cannot follow and is forced to hold her breath, to await the next ride. The brilliance of the language can be overwhelming, blurring the line between childhood and adulthood for the narrator, who seems herself frozen in a sort of retrospective dream.
When Elizabeth's mother suffers a terrible accident, the writing becomes even more dreamlike. The narrator seems adrift in imagery, as though trying to escape from the reality of her mother's disfigurement. Doreen's face is melted, mangled, ravaged. Ashamed to be seen in public with her deformity, Doreen has her husband remove the blades from her skate boots and begins to wear them around the house. She has renounced skating; in effect she has renounced life. Elizabeth burns her own skates in the furnace, and the smell permeates the house.
Ironically, Doreen's disfigurement leads to Peter's artistic awakening, and also his flight; he leaves his family for Celise, a Boston art dealer who has "discovered" him. His absence, first emotional and later physical, creates in Elizabeth a proclivity for the kind of love that, she realizes, her mother would warn her against.
Elizabeth is certain that her mother knows of her father's defection before she dies, though she never tells her that he is gone. Afterwards, Michael McDonald, the boy technically responsible for the accident, visits Elizabeth each night in a kind of tortured expiation, bringing her a pail of fresh milk. She chooses to use it as a bidet. Bringer of both death and life, Michael represents a purity and steadfastness that Elizabeth cannot bring herself to accept.
Instead, she chooses an exotic and transient lover. Friedrich, an Austrian architect, offers both the right and the wrong kind of love. He is experienced and attentive enough to bring about a real awakening; flawed enough to leave her devastated, shorn. Corey renders the ambiance and details of first love like a series of swift kicks to the stomach.
So intense is the love affair that Elizabeth's life, and the book, pale somewhat in its aftermath. Her subsequent attempt to live a life of simple goodness is lovingly detailed, yet it recalls Tolstoy's dismissive sentence: "All happy families are alike." About even marginally happy families, it seems, there is a certain discouraging sameness. This lack-lustre contentment proves problematic both for Elizabeth and the second half of the book. Perhaps because her life to date has been so eventful, the calm of its second act is somewhat soporific. When trouble inevitably comes knocking again, it's not a moment too soon.
In The Skating Pond a slow and patient love erodes obsession, and prevails, and it is also this same love that gets cast aside in a moment, traded for an irresistible darkness and the siren call of flight. The aftermath is regret and the uncertain hope of redemption, a life rebuilt painstakingly in the day-to-day. Destruction and reconstruction, it would appear, are the very marrow of life. ˛