Sonya Weiler, named for the figure skater Sonja Henie, lives with her mother, Valery, and her father, Ray, in a one-room basement apartment in Seattle. Valery plays solitaire, slapping the cards down on the kitchen table. She wears an old bathrobe and sits on the sofa, dreamily twisting the cellophane from her Lucky Strikes package between two fingers. Ray schemes to get rich quick. He hopes to find a gold mine in the mountains. He takes bread money and spends it on bottles of bourbon or drops it into the slots of pinball machines.
Soyna, lying awake on her cot in the kitchenette, sees the truth: The Weilers will never get rich quick. There are no lucky strikes in their future.
In "Imaginary Crimes," Sheila Ballantyne has written a novel that is a kind of epic poem about this Weiler family. She unfolds their story in chapters that are as brief and spare as stanzas. She marks the great events of their lives with small, sharp details we cannot forget. When Valery bears a second child, she names her Greta "for Garbo in 'Camille.' " When the family finally escapes their dismal basement lodgings, Ray finds them a rented "dream house" big enough for a Christmas tree with the latest fad: bubbling lights.
"They are hollow glass candles filled with colored water, which bubble when they're plugged in. Bubbles rise endlessly within the new lights . . . . The smell of fir is pungent in the room. Valery sits down at the old upright piano and awkwardly plays 'Beautiful Dreamer.' She learned it at boarding school in Victoria many years ago. It is the only piece she knows and she plays it over and over again." And, just a few months later, when Valery dies in the bedroom of this same dream house, a Christian Science practitioner prays for her by telephone. Ray sits alone in the living room, "his hands gripping the arms of the wing chair like a stone pharaoh." And, in the dark cellar of the house, the girls' new pet, a live Easter bunny, "quivers on the hard cement."
These are the scenes that will shape the life of Ballantyne's heroine, Sonya. She will remember them later with both the precision of poetry and the distortion of dreams. Indeed, this is the same way we will remember much of the Weilers' story. Ballantyne's writing is stark and effective. Her images well up like those Christmas tree lights to dazzle us. But, at times, there is simply too much razzle-dazzle. There are too many tiny episodes, too many characters who flicker in and out randomly and chaotically like the people in our dreams.
Sonya has friends and lovers who appear and then vanish in a single chapter. The many housekeepers Ray hires after Valery's death blur together in a single nightmarish vision. The difficulty for the reader here is to know what to take account of, which characters to keep in mind. Who is more significant, Hazel the housekeeper or Mitzi the butter wrapper? Hazel, as it happens, will turn up again, many pages--and years--later, while Mitzi melts into the past immediately. But we could not have guessed this from the small chapters that introduced them. There were no clues.
Still, the steadying force through all of this, the one person we can rely on, is Sonya Weiler. In the course of the book, Sonya grows from a confused child to a somewhat-less-confused adult, and Ballantyne makes us care about her every bit of the way.
Sonya is the poor child at the private school, the charity case for her piano teacher. She is a teen-ager who will drive off alone at night looking for something she has lost: her mother's love. Her father, Ray, is a hustler, perhaps even something of a hoodlum. Her sister, Greta, is a shadowy child, too young to be a real companion. These are the facts of Sonya's life. She ponders them without self-pity, only occasionally letting us know how things really are. When her piano teacher touches her arm, for instance, Sonya tells us: "My arm burned where her hand was; no one touched me anymore, no one had touched me for a long time. I couldn't bear its weight; I had mastered name-calling and being screamed at without crying, but her gentleness overwhelmed me."
Ballantyne has assigned Sonya the task of telling part of her own story in this book. Sonya shares this job with an omniscient narrator, but hers is the more difficult work. Because while the narrator's chapters breeze by neatly in the present tense, Sonya's voice is in the past, slowing us down, giving us the feeling that we are somehow being dragged back in time, dragged back into territory we have already covered. This is particularly evident in the book's final episodes, in what are meant to be Sonya's moments of self-discovery. The problem is that everything she discovers is something that we, the readers, already know.
In the end, what really matters, of course, is that Sonya Weiler is a survivor. She will make things all right for herself. She will grow up to tame her nightmares into the form of poems. And even after her story is over, its images will continue to haunt us. This may be because they are familiar somehow, full of ghosts from other books we've read. Sonya Weiler bears resemblance to another Sonya, the heroine of Jean Stafford's "Boston Adventure." Her situation is not unlike Caithleen's in Edna O'Brien's "The Country Girls." But probably the real reason this story stays with us so well is that Sheila Ballantyne has done what a good poet can do; has done, in fact, what Sonya Weiler must learn to do. She has exposed the core of our common dreams. She has revealed those crimes of the heart that we all imagine.