This is a novel that presents as one thing but turns out to be another. The title, “No Book but the World,” is a phrase from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th-
century philosopher who wrote a treatise on the education of children, “Emile.” It took the position that when it comes to so-called education, less is more: The less you meddle with children as they grow up, the better off, the more glowing and radiant they will turn out to be. If knowledge comes to us through a book, Rousseau believed, it probably isn’t genuine wisdom: “No book but the world!”
At the start of the novel, Cohen’s fifth, we see Rousseauvian principles in action. Neel and June live in a compound in the woods, Batter Hollow, five charming, ramshackle cottages that Neel uses as a private school to practice his hypotheses of early-childhood education. The school, with its innocence and evocations of Thoreau, is a surprising success. But when June gives birth to two children, Neel shuts it down. He has his two perfect innocents on which to work out his theories. Of course, the more he chides June for teaching their children to read, sing, play instruments and do math, the more he himself instructs them. It’s a continuing irony that goes on throughout the book.
The two children in question are Ava, who tells most of the story, and Fred, two years younger and developmentally challenged. He has some symptoms of autism: an inability to make eye contact, hand flapping, vocalizations, a yen for making noise by beating out rhythms with sticks on walls and so on. Ava describes him, in his early days, as always having clogged sinuses, an excess of drool and a penchant for thumb-sucking, which continue into adulthood. If he were enrolled in the public school system, he’d be evaluated, diagnosed, put into special-ed classes. And this might be either good or bad for him.
But their father does nothing. There is never a diagnosis, because Neel won’t concede that there’s anything wrong with him. Fred is just another variable on the Natural Man spectrum. The boy learns to read from Ava, who has learned from an ancient stack of fairy-tale books, full of mostly pictures of witches and gnomes. Later in life, Ava muses, “Sometimes I wonder how things might have been different if a grown-up had read us those books. Might it have had a mediating effect?” But for years Fred’s de facto teacher is Ava, a bossy older sister who doesn’t bother to conceal her scorn for him, but who defends him fiercely around other people.
We see this when a new family comes into the compound with a daughter Ava’s age. From then on the kids are a threesome. They spend lots of time in the woods, mostly using Fred for their mean-little-girl schemes.
The novel moves on two tracks. As it opens, Ava is happily married, but Fred is a vagrant, and he’s been arrested in connection with the death of a 12-year-old boy in the New England town of Perdu. Ava hasn’t seen him in two years, but she journeys to Perdu to track her brother down to see what she can do for him.
Still with almost no words to use, still sucking his thumb, Fred has been given over to handyman/drug dealer Dave.He’s not a particularly bad man, but he has a pal, Umberto, who is all mindless evil.
Families who number a challenged child in their midst know what it is to be awake at night, tormented by what will happen when they die and their loved one is left alone. That’s what this novel — Ava’s story — is really about. Her next book, Ava reveals at the end, will be about Umberto and the evil that ordinary people can descend to. Just another example of what unlearned, uncivilized natural man can become.
Carolyn See regularly reviews for Book World.
NO BOOK BUT THE WORLD
By Leah Hager Cohen
Riverhead. 304 pp. $27.95