It is not enough to say that Alice Hoffman, having published her second novel in two years and still somewhere under 30, is remarkable for such a young writer. She is a remarkable writer, period.
Her first novel, "Property Of," the story of a teen-aged girl entrapped in a New York City street gang and in her vision of hersefl, was praised by one reviewer as "hypnotic . . . almost mythic in its canedces." "The Drowning Season," just as hypnotic and Mythic in its language and rhythms, reverberates with situations and characters and the suggest acient myths and European fold tales and seems on one level to function as a symbolic, alegorical tale in a modern setting. Yet it is very much a novel about believable and imperfect human beings, as concrete and individualized as the family next door. It is a ghost to haunt the reader's imagination.
Its Chief protagonists are the two Esthers: Esther the White, cold and blond and elegant, the matriarch who rules over the fimily's self-enclosed world of a Long Island compound; and her 18-year:old granddaughter Esther the Black, brown-skinned and black-haired and wiry, as seemingly passionate and hot-blooded as her grandmother is seemingly unfeeling and aloof. They are women fated to clash.
Even the granddaughter's name is a kind of curse, a harbinger of war. Esther of the White's son Phillip, known to the fishermen and townspeople as "the Drowned Man," an omen of ill-luck because he tries to drown himself every July and August (hence the book's title), deliberately choose his daughter's name as a slap in the face to his mother, who never loved him. "'I wanted to steal from you," he says, "to turn you into a ghost'" Even Jews who have lost their religion, as these have, know that a child is always named for the dead.
The story's plot turns on both women's attempts to escape that curse. Esther the Black wants to flee her grandmother's hateful domination, to escape the limited world of the compound or a larger world that seems to offer the possibilites of love, and to save her father from what she sees as his bewitchment. Esther the White, realizing that she is dying, wants to flee, too; to find a way to "ride the night to sleep." In an eerie moving conversation with Phillip, as both mother and son acknowledge their fates and confess their failures, never quite rings true, for example; yet Esther the White's relationship with Cohen, her chauffeur, seems absolutely necessar. Complicating the the old woman discovers the way of redemption.
To tell the particulars by which the novel is resolved would be unfair, except to say that the last scene finds Esther the White finally telling her granddaughter the story of her life. "From a distance," the closing sentence reads, "it would have been nearly impossible, in the shadows, in the pale morning fog, to tell the two women apart."
In a review this brief, it seems impossible to touch on all the ground this short novel covers. If "The Drowning Season" has a fault, it is that it tires to cover too much: to many characters, too many situations, A subplot involving Esther the Black's relationship to the son of the family accountant, a rock musician, novel's dense texture area series of flash backs to Esther the White's past, containing some of the most exquisite writing in this beautifully writing book.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live" begins John Oidison's new collection of essays, "The White Album." In these days when the narrative of life seems to be breaking down. "The Drowning Season" testifies to the restoring powers of love; fulfilling fiction's promise, it sheds a little light on the darkness.