THE HOUSE ON BELLE ISLE
And Other Stories
By Carrie Brown
Algonquin. 248 pp. $23.95
This collection of seven stories revolves around the conceit of place. Each is anchored by its dramatic setting. True, the places depicted are remarkable in their variety. Brown, the prolific author of three recent novels, gives us a beach house in Rhode Island, a mountain village in Spain, Manhattan, several locations in the South, the English countryside and a Maine island. But these locations, well rendered as they are, constitute the loosest of organizing principles. Nor are they what give the stories their impact. In fact, the language and sensibility with which the locales are described is so uniformly gorgeous that it has the effect of subverting any symbolic weight they might have carried.
This is just as well; readers can sit back and read Brown's lovely descriptive sentences for pure enjoyment, without trying to make more of them. For example, from "Friend to Women": "The dryer was old and lived on the inside back porch amid a welter of coats and boots and browning philodendrons and cracked flowerpots, because it was too noisy to be borne anywhere else and because it left a powdery hill of rust on the floor every time the door was opened." There are dozens more like this.
For all the loveliness of the physical backdrops, however, the emotional landscapes are what count here. Brown is interested in how we pass from one stage of life to the next; she examines over and over the mechanism by which we come to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our circumstances. What is that mechanism? Brown suggests that if only we would look carefully at what lies around us and struggle to ask the right questions about what we see, we would discover the important truths.
She describes this process most succinctly in "The Correspondent," a complex story about a clueless divorcee who comes to understand herself by examining the hundreds of photos she snaps as she takes long walks in New York. In the title story, an older man named Louis Tate lives among the odd treasures his grandmother collected during her career as the only undertaker on Belle Isle, an island off the coast of Maine. The piece opens with a description of one of the more fantastic of these treasures, a woman's severed hand, which becomes such an obsession for Louis that it essentially ends his marriage when he chooses, against his wife's wishes, to retire to the crumbling house after his retirement. He examines the mystery of the hand from every conceivable angle until he arrives at an explanation that satisfies all the available clues. His imagination has afforded him a truth that he intends to pass on to his granddaughter, thereby creating a history.
Brown builds her stories the way a magpie builds a nest, starting with bright material, then shoring it up with details that provide shape and strength. The stories seem full, but she's a careful writer who tells only what needs to be told. This allows her striking observations to stand out, such as this passage from "Wings": "Their childlessness, rather than making them free -- inclined to weekend trips or late nights -- had woven into their life a long period of quiet penance; they had stayed at home, dutiful to the smallest routine, as if staying there, behaving as though they were needed there, might earn them children."
I felt the presence in these pages of Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty and Katherine Ann Porter, which is not to suggest that Brown mimics any of them. She has her own method of looping the past through the present. She often presents salient facts well into a story, thereby asking the reader to recalculate the premise. She's skillful enough to pull this off; rather than being annoying, it has the effect of letting the reader get to know her characters in the often surprising way one comes to know other people.
My favorite is "Postman," about a 14-year-old English boy who works at his relatives' pony camp for the summer. He resents his demeaning chores and the snobbish girls who treat him as a servant, until homesick Nicola, three years his junior, astonishes him with her bravery when her pony bolts during a thunderstorm. She also inspires him, and when he finds himself alone with her in the final scene, he is able to open himself wholly to this new, intimate experience. Brown proves herself brave and inspired, too, in this accomplished work. *
Alice Elliott Dark's new novel is "Think of England."