An Ordinary Star

by Carole Giangrande
ISBN: 1896951562

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A Review of: An Ordinary Star
by Heather Birrell

An Ordinary Star maps a life as one might chart the night sky-seeking out known markers and patterns even as the enormity of the project becomes overwhelmingly clear. Carole Giangrande's second novel (her first, A Forest Burning, was very well received ) opens with the elderly Sofia Fiore slipping and hitting her head on the edge of the bathtub. Already suffering from an unnamed blood disease, Sofia is hospitalized for her head injury, the result of a clot on the brain. During her hospital stay, she is inundated by memories of her childhood, adolescence and adulthood, and begins to try to parse and grasp the meaning of past events as her life "converg[es] on her like the Big Bang in reverse."
Sofia grows up in the Bronx of the 1920s and 30s-enduring the depression and pre-war years-and comes to adulthood during the Second World War. As a first generation American, however, it is her Italian roots which inform her homelife, and in part determine her formation as a woman. Giangrande sets her scene well, although she resorts to a modicum of obtrusive cultural sign-posting, especially at the outset, where we learn that Sofia's "father's shelves are stiff with leather-bound books in English and Italian, with phonograph albums of Verdi and Puccini, Vivaldi and Scarlatti." The narration here often shifts from 3rd person intimate-showcasing Sofia's inner life in a loose oblique style-to a much drier, more distanced and instructive perspective: "Sofia listens, absorbing all the details. Almost eight years old, she isn't sure what to make of all this."
In general, Giangrande's prose style tends towards the lyrical, shot through with a whimsical brand of Sofia-style spirituality, prompted in part by her Aunt Julia, a woman who leaves a "cloudlike impression on the world." Despite Julia's fey nature, however, she seems more real to the curious, imaginative Sofia than her ailing mother, who is not only often physically absent-either hospitalized or off in the countryside recuperating-but also mentally preoccupied and distant.
Aunt Julia, who is studying astronomy, encourages her niece to look to the heavens-the myriad constellations, the bright gleam of Venus-for solace and wonder. It is an attitude in stark contrast to those of Sofia's father and grandparents on her mother's side, who are all three embroiled in various aspects of the politics of the hour-the former a fervent Italian patriot and admirer of Mussolini in his early days, and the latter anarchists of socialist persuasion, with ties to certain violent extremist groups.
As Sofia grows older, her curious nature intensifies, and she becomes more and more enamored of her aunt, and the intriguing adult world Julia represents. The author here seems less concerned with prosaic psychological complexity than a kind of psychic poetry that alludes to states of mind and conditions of the heart. Her approach, like that of her protagonist at prayer, is less linear than intuitive, which leads to some strappingly beautiful, apt language: "Her own intuitions grew more vivid. She wanted to know everything about everyone-beginning with her mother. Her desire made a hard fist, hard enough to break God's bones."
When it comes to understanding her relationships and surroundings, Sofia's doggedness is in part strengthened by her family's seeming elusiveness. In her own words: "My mother disappears and my aunt floats. I rummage through people's souls." The teenage Sofia's infatuation with her aunt eventually extends to her Uncle Paul-who has begun courting Julia-and becomes infused with a sexual yearning made more powerful by its obviously incestuous timbre. She resolves not to surrender to her desires even as she stokes them with schoolgirl fantasies. When Paul, who has, it is hinted, become adept at philandering, finally seduces his niece, she carries her secret-which has less to do with the act itself than her willing participation in it-into her marriage and throughout her life.
Sofia's "rummaging" as a means of negotiating the world allows the author to avoid straightforward revelation in favour of lovely, telling resonances, but also makes for some heavy handed, oft-repeated symbolism and imagery. The incidences of "floating Aunt Julia" and light-filled, portentous moments are many, and when a German built Zeppelin arrives in New York City, and Uncle Paul secures a place for himself on board for one of its first trans-Atlantic flights, we understand immediately the airship's significance to the narrative. Not only does it clearly represent the fragile supremacy of technological progress, a shift from Old World to New, and the onset of war, it also foreshadows (quite literally as it looms over the city's skyline) the Hindenberg disaster and the loss of Sofia's airy innocence.
By and large, Giangrande's sense of simile is hit-and-miss. Her comparisons are at times concrete and surprising. After her mother's death Sofia feels "like a heavy loaf of bread, chewed and eaten by every passing day." At other times they come across as abstract and overly romantic. Musing over her husband Stefano's ability to instantly conjure the past, Sofia understands that "time was a garment that would gather you up in its length and breadth, that would warm and protect you and never disappear."
That said, the actual handling of what is arguably the novel's climax-wherein the Hindenberg (on which Aunt Julia and Uncle Paul are passengers) bursts into flames mere metres from the ground-is masterly, striking a perfect balance between restraint and a necessary emotional release. With its echoes of a more recent New York disaster-complete with victims flinging themselves with tragic abandon from the flaming wreckage-it packs a well-earned emotional wallop.
One of Giangrande's other great strengths is in her ability to evoke the mystery of missing (in both senses of the word) persons. She often excels at describing the constant reiteration of loss that bewilders her characters. Take this passage for instance, in which Sofia observes her father's disorienting sadness: "Even their American dead were buried elsewhere-Uncle Guido, born in Manhattan, was laid to rest in France. Sometimes her dad would reach out, as if to grip an invisible railing on a flight of stairs. How surprised he'd look-horrified to find nothing there."
It is not clear, at novel's end, how much of an understanding Sofia has gained from her musing on the components-both personal and historical-of her existence. For readers, the structure of the novel encourages not so much sense-making as a sometimes confounding, dream-like immersion. Still, in the end, and despite some of its excesses, what Giangrande has accomplished in An Ordinary Star is far from ordinary-Sofia's is less a workaday deathbed reckoning than an indirect self-disclosure, a gentle unfurling of both the tragedies and the joys she has beheld in the course of her light and dark dappled life.

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