Family Matters

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, September 24, 2006


A Novel

By Lisa Carey

Morrow. 306 pp. $24.95

This year marks the 30th anniversary of a miracle that unpublished novelists remember with a mixture of encouragement and envy: In 1976, an unsolicited manuscript, plucked from the slush pile at Viking, became the runaway bestseller Ordinary People . It's impossible not to think of Judith Guest's novel (or Robert Redford's Academy Award-winning movie) when reading Lisa Carey's new Every Visible Thing . Both novels examine the implosion of a happy, successful family after the loss of a golden son. Although Carey is a better and more experienced writer than Guest, Every Visible Thing is unlikely to cause the same stir as Ordinary People , largely because we're not the same people we were 30 years ago. The way nice families smother their feelings is now something of a cliché. Nobody whispers the words "suicide," "depression" or "divorce" anymore. Grief counselors are as common in schools as antibacterial soap.

And yet Every Visible Thing is an emotionally compelling novel that takes us deep into the pain that siblings suffer when a child is lost. "Lost," in this case, isn't a euphemism. We meet the Furey family in a wealthy suburb of Boston five years after the unsolved disappearance of Hugh, who, at 15, was the kind of guy "people felt lucky to be around." Popular, kind and good-looking, Hugh had been involved with a troubled girl who had a drug problem. His disappearance sent his mother into a prolonged depression and shattered his father's faith, resulting in the loss of his teaching position at a Catholic college.

When the novel opens, these parents seem to be moving on, but only in ways that exacerbate the sense of abandonment their remaining two children feel. Mrs. Furey has thrown herself into medical school and puts in 36-hour shifts caring for other people's kids; Mr. Furey works at a religious publisher and moves about the house -- when he's home -- in a distracted haze. By a strict but unspoken agreement, no one ever, ever mentions their missing son.

Carey keeps the novel tightly focused on the two remaining children with a peculiar structure that works surprisingly well. The chapters alternate between 15-year-old Lena in the first person and 10-year-old Owen in the third person. Both voices convey the adult terrors of children while still attending to their innocent hopes and desires.

Unbeknownst to her parents, Lena has found a box of her older brother's undeveloped film in the basement. Over the course of the novel, she develops these pictures in photography class and treats them as clues to her brother's final weeks, hoping to see him again by seeing what he saw. That path quickly leads her to a hangout for drug addicts and dealers, where she engages in the sort of self-destructive behavior that parents less absorbed in their own grief might have noticed.

Meanwhile, poor little Owen is practically raising himself. "Most of Owen's life," Carey writes, "at least the part he can remember, has involved the members of his family sequestering themselves in their assigned chambers." The situation at school is even worse: He's constantly harassed by an older bully who exploits Owen's budding homosexuality in the cruelest ways. Carey describes this physical and psychological ordeal with bracing insight and sensitivity. Indeed, if the novel's sexual and narcotic content can slip past the deadening hand of school censors, Every Visible Thing is the kind of cathartic book that some mature teenagers would find wholly absorbing.

For her adult readers, though, I wish that Carey had been willing to pursue the rich religious themes she sprinkles throughout the novel. It's all here -- starting with the title from St. Augustine's description of angels: We've got a mother who abandons the church for the salvation of medicine, a theology professor who bitterly embraces atheism, and a little boy who imagines that his missing brother watches over him like a guardian angel. But mostly these religious themes are seen through a glass darkly, while the novel concentrates on the suspense of Lena's dangerous search and Owen's sexual terror. The angel motif flutters around with no real metaphysical weight.

Still, Carey is an affecting writer with a good eye for the emotional details of adolescence. Every Visible Thing is a dramatic reminder of just what a corrosive mixture grief and silence can be. By its conclusion, salvation remains a long way off for these ordinary people, but the promise of it hovers over them. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

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