THE ART OF FICTION has often been compared, with good reason, to the art of weaving. The many threads spun out into a richly textured fabric, the warp and woof of life. As Virginia Grant Marbalestier, the protagonist and narrator of Janet Burroway's fourth novel, says when asked what she likes about Japan, "Pattern. Pattern is what matters most to me . . . I like the shapes of their gardens, and the way they weave. Sumi and Kabuki, ukiyo-e, Noh, Bunraku - things that come to closure. I'd rather see a tragedy come to closure than a drifting comedy." This sense of closure is the reason some of us still prefer the patterns of, say, Henry James to the drifting comedies of Pynchon or Coover.
And Raw Silk is the kind of novel that James might have conceived were he female and living in the '70s - the tragi-comic tale of an intelligent and sensitive American woman married to an Englishman, woven with insight and wit and rich detail into an inevitable pattern.
Virginia Marbalestier is herself a maker of patterns, a textile designer for the British firm for which her husband is the commercial manager. It is a long way from the trailer park in California where she grew up as the daughter of a jobbing carpenter, spending her childhood "in a rage against the turning off of taps and the apportioning of nickels for ice cream cones," to the affluence of the Tudor manor house where she now lives with Oliver and six-year-old Jill. If, after 11 years, marriage with someone from whom she is so different has come to seem "harrassing," it is also "organiz," something known and reliable, but the surface order begins to crack after Virginia submits to Oliver's insistence that Jill be sent to boarding school to be "finished." To escape the empty house and her guilt at having "sacrificed" Jill, Virginia leaves her home studio for an office at the factory and forms close friendships with the other members of the design department.
There she meets Frances, a highly depressed, almost catatonic young girl, to whom she becomes friend and protector out of, at first, pity. Slowly, however, she begins to identify with Frances, whose self-hatred seems "the only thoroughgoing honesty I had witnessed" and who "was living out a kind of courage I had never thought of," and she discovers that the girls "dull-footed dumb misery" actually hides a remarkable artistic talent. As she comes to understand Frances, and as Oliver becomes more and more threatened by his loss of control over her, Virginia examines the self-betrayals and deceptions of her life, the consequences of her weakness and her refusal of will. Things fly apart. Violence and betrayal accumulate until a trip to Japan forces her, amidst the isolation and terror she experiences there, to begin to assimilate the bits and pieces of herself she has been giving away.
Raw Silk is, quite specifically, a novel about women's failure to choose, about drifting along, living as though our lives were temporary and something were coming to save us, about the consequences of "inattention, ignorance, mistake" to ourselves, to our children, to lovers and husbands. It is very much about how this failure leads to our frustration, anger, self-hatred, even madness, but Burroway is too intelligent to offer easy solutions. She knows that the pattern of male dominance and female submission is so tightly woven that it is almost impossible to rend it, and she knows how women have participated in the weaving.
Virginia comes to see that when she "puts out a fluorescent halo of victimization," she is treated like a victim, that if, Oliver has become a "cartoon" for her, she "was in on the process." Burroway recognizes, too, how threatened and baffled men may be by all this: Oliver, for example, "can't believe that a woman should have her way in this sort of disagreement [Jill's education]. He can't believe it, any more than I can believe a smug face is an ornament to horsemanship."
This is not a perfect novel.Apart from Virginia, the characters seem slightly stereotyped. Oliver is a little patently orderly and pompous and possessive, Jill a little too precocious, Frances too obviously Virginia's distorted mirror-image. And the identification of England with order and stability and propriety is perhaps too easy. Yet these flaws seem insignificant beside the many things to admire: the subtlety with which Burroway weaves the many threads - the polarities of East and West, agression and passivity, the layered levels of betrayal, the motif of design. And whether you've been to Japan or not, her descriptions of it will strike you as just right: the gardens at Kamakura, which are "not like English gardens laid on a plot of ground, but designed to fill the whole cube of air above it," and Nikko, where "the red and gold spectacle of the temple matches the extrvagant woods," the smell of food, the crowds of Tokyo, the isolation of not seeing another Western face or of not hearing a language you can understand.
Burroway's depth of understanding of the complexities of male-female relationships carries Raw Silk to an inevitable and honest ending, and her luminous style will engage and delight. More than enough to make you wonder why you haven't heard more of Janet Burroway before and to augur well for her future.