Hit and Run
Monica Wood's new novel, Any Bitter Thing (Chronicle, $23.95), opens with a bang. Thirty-year-old Lizzy Mitchell, still steaming from a domestic tiff, is out jogging when a hit-and-run driver leaves her for dead in the middle of the road. A passing motorist stops only long enough to drag her to the shoulder. That near-death experience may not be the worst of Lizzy's many problems.
As she recovers from her physical trauma, the mental wounds of her childhood begin to reopen. Wood balances the novel's current events with lengthy depictions of Lizzy's past and the social stigma she suffered. When her parents died before her third birthday, her Uncle Mike, a priest, received permission to raise her in the Maine rectory where he lived. Scandal followed, and Mike was sent packing "to someplace called Baltimore to think about his sins." Soon, another terrible, terrible secret will come to light.
Though still on the mend from the car accident, Lizzy returns to her job as a high school guidance counselor, where she works with teens with lives as troubled as her own. When a "bad Samaritan" named Griggs reappears in her life, he is yet another in a series of flawed surrogate fathers, each of whom Lizzy tries to forgive: "It struck me that I'd been furious at God for so long it felt like my own form of religion, but something moved inside me right then, and it was the church itself I was drawn to. This was my first experience of nostalgia; maybe that's what grief becomes over time." Although some of the later plot revelations are hard to believe, the cleverly blurred timelines allow us to see -- even better than Lizzy can -- how the different acts of violence in her life continue to define her.
Shadow of Suicide
Light of Day (Morrow, $24.95), by debut novelist Jamie M. Saul, also begins with a personal tragedy and then relies on a number of flashbacks that allow yet another terrible secret to emerge. Jack Owens, a grieving film professor at a Midwestern college, rifles through a treasure trove of memories to figure out why his teenage son, Danny, committed suicide. He also ponders just how much blame to assign himself, but recognizes that he is "not sure which is worse, knowing or not knowing." As an additional complication, Jack's wife bailed years earlier, abandoning him and Danny to pursue her artistic career.
Within only a few pages we find ourselves strapped in for an exhilarating emotional roller-coaster ride. There's some powerful writing at work here, the rare kind able to pull you smack-dab into somebody else's damaged psyche. Even if you can't relate personally to what Owens is going through -- and no one who hasn't been in his sorry position can -- you will nevertheless feel yourself sinking along with him, deeper and deeper, alternately into rage and despair:
"Jack watched the river carry the flotsam and debris on its way to meet the Ohio, taking whatever fell in its path, leaving behind whatever dropped away, endlessly unraveling, like time itself. And what was he going to do, he wondered, with all of his time?" The motion in time tends to distract the reader, but it also cleverly reflects Owens's confused state of mind in the aftermath of Danny's death. Those memories offer clues that help Owens move on with his life and even gain a new appreciation for his kid. Light of Day is one of those debut novels that delivers the goods with style and compassion.
Alix Ohlin's amusing The Missing Person (Knopf, $22.95), another debut, features another grieving parent and a mystery surrounding an elusive female painter. Lynn lives in New York and is supposed to be writing a dissertation that would "re-evaluate the feminist art movement in modernist terms," but she makes little progress, and her academic career languishes. After her bossy mother summons her home to New Mexico, she hesitantly agrees to go look for her missing brother, Wylie, who has joined a group of bumbling eco-vandals.
In Albuquerque, Lynn is rummaging through her mother's closet when she finds two paintings she remembers from her childhood. Predictably, she grows obsessed: "The longer I stared at the paintings, the more certain I felt that there was some reason I'd found them. I wasn't given to wild imaginings or superstitious by nature, but it was as if they'd somehow demanded to be unpacked and examined." In researching their provenance, she believes she has uncovered -- you guessed it -- a terrible secret that threatens to throw her oddball family into further disarray.
Lynn is at first a difficult character to understand or to sympathize with. Despite her professional interest in feminism, she's awfully wishy-washy and lets herself get goaded into doing things she doesn't necessarily want to, such as flying across the country, destroying private property and sleeping with hippies. But when she finds Wylie and starts to hang out with him and his prankster cohort, she begins to question, finally, whether the radicals might be right after all. Perhaps the real freaks are the conformist, air-conditioned condo-dwelling TV-junkies, who, like her mother, have entirely divorced themselves from the natural world.
I'm not saying that Ohlin is calling for some kind of return-to-nature revolution -- far from it, actually -- only that she's a good enough writer to make me wonder if I'm the one missing something. Hidden amid Lynn's high jinks and wacky capers lurks a seriously entertaining and probing novel.
End of the Earth
In Natives and Exotics (Harcourt, $23), Jane Alison takes us where history books can't -- or won't -- go. A string of novella-like chapters transports us further and further into the past to form revelatory connections among global imperialism, scientific discovery and environmental destruction.
After a brief prologue set in the 19th century, Alison moves to those halcyon, Nixon-era days. A young woman's parents drag her to live among Ecuador's expatriate community of oil barons seeking to prosper from the nation's political unrest. Alice's bourgeois upbringing acts as a kind of looking glass through which she witnesses previously unimaginable levels of poverty and idyllic, natural beauty -- the very beauty her father's cronies are threatening.
In another section, set during the 1920s in the Australian wilderness, Alice's grandmother Violet struggles to make a rough plot of ground suitable for human use. Doing so means uprooting the native species. Elsewhere, in 1822, the locals are expelled as a different tract of land is "cleared for betterment, for sheep." Colonialism and displacement become major themes, and they resound loudly through this multigenerational saga. Though set hundreds of years apart, these stories quickly flow into a single narrative powerful enough to show how closely related our familial, political and natural worlds really are.
Set mainly on a make-believe Caribbean island called Guanagaspar, Shani Mootoo's second novel, He Drown She in the Sea (Grove, $23), serves up a classic Romeo-and-Juliet love story with a clever, postcolonial twist. Harry, the caretaker's son, learns about race and class distinctions at a young age, during World War II. While under the supervision of a gardener tending the estate of a local landowner, young Harry flirts with the master's daughter, Rose, only to be severely reprimanded: "You and me is yard-boy material. She is the bossman daughter. Oil and water. Never the two shall mix. You too young to know what I saying. But I saying it anyway. She will grow up pretty. You so young and already have taste. But, gyurls like she does only make fellas like we cry."
Mootoo transports us to and fro in space and time, all the while conjuring up a number of atmospheric vignettes. Harry eventually immigrates to present-day Canada and settles down on the coast of British Columbia, where he must reconcile his forbidden, distant romance with his growing affection for a Canadian divorcee named Kay.
Torn between his ties to his homeland -- not all of them pleasant -- and his desire to segue into Canadian life, Harry "has spent a lifetime haunted by the desire to be a part of a particular Guanagasparian world in which he would, more than likely, never have achieved the status of insider, and this is the fuel under any fire that might have burned in him." When he meets Rose again years later, that fire threatens to scorch those around him. By then, however, Harry has begun to establish a new identity for himself -- and becomes an especially memorable and charming character. *
Andrew Ervin is a writer and critic in Champaign, Ill. He is a frequent contributor to Book World.