CENTURIES OF JUNE
By Keith Donohue
Crown. 342 pp. $24
There’s a dead father in Keith Donohue’s new book, or at least there seems to be. Donohue establishes an air of mystery around this figure at the outset and keeps us uncertain about all kinds of things in “Centuries of June.” It’s an episodic novel that’s part ghost story, part psychological mystery and part vaudeville show. Think Scheherazade by way of “Tristram Shandy” by way of “The Sixth Sense.” Or, since restatement and self-correction are essential to this narrative experiment, try “The Decameron” by way of “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by way of “Groundhog Day.” Throw in “A Night at the Opera,” too, since Donohue enlists both Groucho and Harpo (the latter in the role of a house cat) to remind us of the perilous way his characters are piling up.
Like all good mysteries, this one begins with a dead man. Maybe. Nanoseconds before the book opens, our narrator has slipped and struck his head on the bathroom floor, and when we first meet him, he’s watching his blood spill onto the tiles. In one of the nice bits of observation that Donohue gets very right, he sees it seep “into the grout, which will be murder to clean.” Which may or may not be the only kind of murder we have on our hands.
It’s here that Donohue, whose prior novels “The Stolen Child” and “Angels of Destruction”concern the intersection of reality and dreams, starts telling nine entirely different stories: the stories of eight women from various periods in American history, intermingled with the framing device of our narrator’s bathroom fall. Donohue puts a wide range of voices and methods to work, some of which succeed better than others. But what lies beneath is his delight in exploring the interplay of reality and fantasy, of things temporal and eternal.
While our narrator lies bleeding — and later on, while he gets up and attends to certain small matters in an empty house where the clocks are all stopped at 4:52 a.m. — the eight women appear out of nowhere. Or rather, out of some past that they might or might not share with the narrator. One by one they tell their stories: the Tlingit woman who marries a bear; the shipwrecked cabin boy/girl; the slave whose narrative gets tattooed upon her naked body while we — and a man who may be the narrator’s father — watch. Begun in magic, these stories end in real-world misery. The narrator starts to sense a pattern. We begin to smell a theme. And everything comes together powerfully at the end.
For all of its complexity and ambition, “Centuries of June” captivates mostly in the small things, the little bits of textual and theatrical sleight-of-hand that Donohue pulls off without much apparent effort. His seafaring woman “dipped a finger into the sink and twirled the water, making a whirlpool, and the tiny ship caught in the vortex spun like a top.” When the bathtub transmogrifies into a creekbed, the narrator says, “Questions swirled in my brainpan,” but then he bends down and searches for nuggets of gold in the water.
The stories swirl here, too. Donohue works hard to keep them all going. And when they finally settle down, it’s with a moment of melancholy and regret that may be the most touching thing in the novel. That this moment belongs to the narrator and not to any of the eight wounded women will be either a disappointment or a revelation.
Clinch is the author of the novels “Finn” and “Kings of the Earth.”