"Stillness" is the third novel in Nicholas Delbanco's "Sherbrooke" trilogy (the other two are, in order, "Possession" and "Sherbrookes"), and while it completes the pattern of design and expression for the whole work, it stands quite well by itself. In fact, all three novels so profoundly reflect and inform each other that to read one is to be given at least the metaphorical richness of the others -- the journey through is well worth the time.
The action of "Stillness" takes place during a single day in the Sherbrooke mansion in Vermont. The Big House, as it has been called for many years, was built by Peacock Sherbrooke -- or, really, ordered and designed by him, and finished on the day of his return to Vermont and his death, in 1869. Residing in the Big House now are Maggie Culter Sherbrooke, her grown son Ian and her illegitimate late-life child, Jane. The last of the Sherbrooke patriarchs, Judah, has been dead four years, and the people of the town believe Jane is the child of Judah and Maggie's marriage. The child's true father is Andrew Kincannon, who lives in New York; and it is Andrew we see in the opening pages of the novel, preparing for a trip to the Big House where he has been summoned by Ian.
We learn that Andrew has known about the child since shortly after her birth 3 1/2 years earlier. The words of Ian's summons have "cracked his world wide open." "If you're still listening," Ian says over the telephone, "the mother of your child is going crazy. Come."
Andrew comes north to take up his paternity -- not so much by intention as by the pull of forces he does not understand -- and Maggie, in a very moving scene shortly after Andrew's arrival, when it has become apparent that she must leave the Big House, decides that she will not leave it by killing herself, though she goes as far as to compose two different suicide notes to her daughter.
This may be called the foreground of the novel. In the background is the whole Sherbrooke clan -- Hattie, Judah's sister, who committed suicide upon learning that Maggie's last child is not Judah's; Peacock, the prosperous and religious builder; Daniel Jr., the disowned Sherbrooke, whose son shows up at the Big House to haunt Judah's father and to die around the time of Judah's birth.
Delbanco could have treated these generations of the Sherbrooke clan chronologically and probably would have had a big paperback, one of those fat sagas with the flashy covers one sees on drugstore shelves; but he is an artist and treats them in the only way they can matter, through the inner lives and problems of the present. For Maggie and Ian Sherbrooke, the problem with the present is the past. "One way or another," Ian says, "we all make a museum out of our past. . . My family just happened to retain it more than most."
Maggie retains the past in the memory and spirit of Judah, her dead husband, from whom, in life and death, she has tried to break free, unsuccessfully, over and over. Judah, old enough to be her father, yet nothing like her father, still haunts her four years after his death: "Her memory of Judah will not fade. He stands there, increasing, solid as the flesh he was and intervening always in her hope of breathing space."
And if it is Judah that haunts Maggie, it is the whole weight of Sherbrooke ancestry that haunts Ian. He, like Maggie, has wandered far from the Big House, only to return and to find himself held there, fixed in place by his knowledge that he is a Sherbrooke, and Judah's son.
But as being in the house has broken down Maggie's sanity, it has caused Ian to begin to grow: It is there, for instance, that he risks himself in love, and begins to learn how to act as father and brother and son. He learns, really, to love without the will to possess -- which is what Judah never learned to do. In one of the last scenes, where he is shown fixing a meal for Jane, there is a tender moment of knowledge that she and Maggie will be leaving: "Each of Jane's gestures seems freighted with the weight of loss, and he watches her as closely as he dares. . . She is everything he hoped for in a daughter or a sister, and he . . . cannot bear to relinquish her just yet." Ian does relinquish her, and in so doing free her, and Maggie. "Judah's dead," he tells his mother in the last pages. "You can stop mourning him now."
"Stillness" is a fine novel, written with care and skill. Delbanco never waste a word, yet each sentence reverberates; he is never poetic merely for the sake of a turn of phrase, yet there is poetry in "Stillness." His characters move in the stillness that is the always present tense of literature.