TTHE TITLE OF Joan Chase's first novel suggests exoticism, historical sweep, poetry, and yet it alludes to a well-off Ohio farm family in the 1950s making its way through the ordinary tribulations of growing up, loving, and dying. Its lure is not wholly ironic, though; During the Reign of the Queen of Persia offers an exoticism of the emotions, and daily life exhilarated with the richness and evocativeness of poetry. It is also one of the few contemporary novels of women's lives for which one need make no allowances, grant no compromised sympathy. Joan Chase hasn't any message or visible politcs, simply an artist's passion for rendering reality accurately, a love of the tactile world, of sensual experience, and a willingness to confront, without resolving, her characters' grievous ambiguities.
The Queen of Persia is Gram, a tough, gallivanting autocrat who governs a surly husband, five grown daughters and assorted mates, and adolescent grandchildren with a peculiar blend of involvement and aloofness. She is like her large brick house, which in the wake of a family calamity "stood firm against it, stretching away up over us, cold and empty as though it had felt each desertion, low death and failure that had occurred and, like someone with a stern character, had been made stronger yet numb from having suffered them."
As a girl, to escape a life of lonely poverty as a servant, Gram married a man whose icily intense sexuality killed the tenderness in her; when, with fairy-tale inconsequence, she inherits a fortune from a rich uncle, she turns her energy to building a little empire in the emotional wilderness. Her volatile, gritty daughter Libby lives with her, as well as Libby's husband Dan, a gentle butcher playing his ancillary role in the household with long-sufferance. Another daughter, Grace, returns intermittently between spells with her writer husband, who is loving and sadistic in turn, improvident, alcoholic, and impossible to live with. And a third, Elinor, New York advertising executive and Christian Scientist, arrives at crises to lavish her radiant personality and dubious doctrine.
For all the boldly drawn adults, the heart of the novel rests with the four girls (two are Grace's daughters, two Libby's) who record the family life they observe and partake in as they pass into adolescence--an innovative narrative "we" that moves the reader through rhythms of time and change with a wondrous fluidity. "For as long as we could remember we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world . . . it was as though the four of us were one and we lived in days that gathered into one stream of time, undifferentiated and communal." Because of the strangeness of the unaccustomed "we" as storyteller, along with Chase's skillful oscillation from simple to lush language, the commonplaces of childhood--eavesdropping as tacciturn Grandad confides in his cows, playing strip poker in the hayloft, and swinging from trees and cavorting naked through mud in a rainstorm--are transformed into rites of passage and take on aspects of myth. What the four girls narrate is, like life itself, a mesh of happenings rather than a plot. The two happenings that bound the world of the novel like facing walls are the sexual ripening of Celia, oldest of the granddaughters, and the wasting and death of Grace. The opening section shows Celia suddenly in possession of an ineffable, troubling magnetism. All the mystery of sex is evoked as the three other girls, outside in the dark, peer through a window at Celia and her boyfriend on the couch. "We didn't care what it was called or the price to be paid; someday we would have it." But Celia's magic flowering is brief; her beauty ends in tragedy. In the country night, the girls discover, "Apples fell to their ruin. We could smell them softening in their own brine."
The second half of the novel revolves around Grace's slow death from cancer, which becomes less a private event than a communal one. As Elinor labors to save her sister by Christian Science against Gram's furious disbelief, the watching girls grow even closer in their devotion to Grace, "thinking, feeling and moving in a dimension that felt like the exact representation of a greater mind." And as they spy Grace from afar, silhouetted on a hillside, their premature familiarity with death takes on a density and scope rarely found in first novels: Grace appears as "a shadow, indeed the visible incarnation of a present spiritual being. The newly cut grass was redolent of its raked crops and in the golden and purpling passage of evening light over it we perceived again the incorporeal origins of creation." When Grace finally dies, it is as though the family is forced to yield her back to the elements.
Even more than a tale of indomitable women living and dying in close communion, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is about the abiding reach of childhood, the tenacious grip that early images and impressions keep on our lives. It is one of the inspiriting themes of Willa Cather, another chronicler of stalwart souls, who wrote, "the only things we cherish are those which in some way met our original want; the desire which formed us in early youth, undirected and of its own accord." Chase's four young girls are already formed by the close of the book: their aunts and grandmother are so exuberantly and painfully alive and leave so deep an imprint that, for better or worse, "we knew we'd have to live our whole lives off what they'd said and done around us."
In the end the farm is sold to land developers; Gram, the unsentimental, buys a modern ranch house;;the family, one senses, will never be the same. But the vision of what it once was remains, in the minds of the narrators as well as in the structure of this splendid and durable book. Just so, when the family barn burns at dawn, "After the collapse of the final two sides there was a lull while the visible internal structure of the barn, posts and beams, timbered rafters, the metal roof, stood complete, revealing once more, at the end, the original plan."