ANIMAL DREAMS By Barbara Kingsolver HarperCollins. 342 pp. $21.95
THE "search for the father" is so common a theme in American fiction that one might be tempted to wonder why so many sons seem to mislay Pa somewhere, and then have epiphanies when they find him. When it's a daughter that seeks the father lost or disguised, however, we are on less familiar ground.
Cosima/Codi Noline/Nolina (seeking identity, she seeks her true name) comes back home to Grace, Ariz., a canyon mining town, hoping to keep an eye on Dad, who though still the town doctor is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and to get a handle on herself. The father's voice and memories alternate with Codi's in the narration to create a haunting interplay of revelation, concealment and confusion.
The terms of the daughter's search for selfhood widen gradually and vastly out from the paternal ego-center. In the father-son story, the mother is often dead or negligible. In this story she is dead but vitally present, not a non-quantity but an aching absence. And the central person in Codi's life, the second self, is her sister Hallie -- but Hallie too is absent, having gone to Nicaragua. Her voice and presence weave through the book in memories and letters. Then there are the friends in Grace: Emelina who gives Codi a house to live in, Emelina's brood of kids, Loyd the Apache-Navajo-Pueblo friend who never knew Codi had miscarried his baby way back in high school. And there's Emelina's mama Viola, and all the mamas in town, the members of the Stitch and Bitch Club -- "the fifty mothers," Codi begins to call them. It is through the mothers and the grandmothers that she finds her way finally to the father, and so to the mother, and to the truth -- a very relative truth.
The story is about relatives, relatedness, relationships. Perhaps all novels are. But I think Animal Dreams belongs to a new fiction of relationship, aesthetically rich and of great political and spiritual significance and power. The writers have been predominantly women of color -- African-American, Latina, Native American. In Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, Louise Erdrich's novels, Toni Morrison's Beloved, Paul Gunn Allen's collection Spider Woman's Granddaughters, one can see relationship as the central and motive force of the work. There are relatives, often in large numbers, family all over the place, family that may include coyotes, pecan trees, the dead and other people's children. The imagery underlying the narrative is of networks, bonds, patterns, connections, bodies, the body politic, the web, the weft.
When the weaving is broken the pattern is lost. Things don't make sense. Work defeats itself. The orchards of Gracela Canyon are poisoned by mercury from the mine tailings, the old croplands are salt-white from irrigation and the Black Mountain Mine Company plans a dam that will finish killing the canyon by stopping its river at the source. The men are worn out, defeated. The members of the Stitch and Bitch Club want to act, to try to darn the holes in the fabric of things. How do a bunch of small-town middle-aged housewives stop a dam? By organizing. By getting woven together. Kingsolver's last book was nonfiction: Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1893. Her insight into this form of relationship, organizing industrial or environmental action, is keen, and her description of this particular example (which involves artificial peacocks) is vivid and very funny. THE STORIES in Kingsolver's Homeland are so extraordinary, and her stunning first novel, The Bean Trees, is already so widely loved, that her readers may come with very high expectations. In The Bean Trees the narrator's voice is like Emmylou Harris's, so true it makes your throat ache. Told in that young voice, the terrible has happened before you even recognize it. The main voice in Animal Dreams is that of a grown woman, a loner, highly educated, self-doubting, savvy, scared. She knows the terrible will happen, and it does. The story is slower, weightier. The language is rich, complex, witty. Codi's confusions impede simplicity, and Doc Homer's voice speaks from ever further in the fog of dementia.
Sometimes the patterning seems over-explicit. Doc Homer confuses times and persons, takes Codi for Hallie or her mother or herself 20 years ago, but he never loses her: He always has an emotional thread to follow. My idea of Alzheimer's as a clueless labyrinth struggled with this less dreadful vision of it, half-convinced.
Again, Loyd is a lovely man, a dream-man, with his dream-pueblo -- too good to be true? Wishful thinking? Maybe, maybe not. We are too used to novelists who play safe. The celebration of goodness in this book is incredibly, irresistibly courageous. It rises to unforgettable intensity in passages such as the chapter called "Bleeding Hearts." And the longing for closure, for the 'happy ending,' is fulfilled in an absolutely legitimate fictional way: Happiness for these particular people, in this particular place and moment. There is no faking, no cheating. The small comedy is seen in the great, tragic perspective of the despoiled West. The web is not mended. And always the wound to the south, the unacknowledged war of the great power against the weak, bleeds and drains and gangrenes. The beloved sister's murdered body is buried in that ground. What then is the home ground, the homeland?
"So you think we all just have animal dreams," Codi says. "We can't think of anything to dream about except our ordinary lives." And Loyd answers her: "Only if you have an ordinary life. If you want sweet dreams, you've got to live a sweet life."
This is a sweet book, full of bitter pain; a beautiful weaving of the light and the dark. This one will be with us for a long time. Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of such novels as "The Left Hand of Darkness," "The Dispossessed" and, most recently, "Tehanu: The Fourth Book of Earthsea."