ANOTHER review. I don’t do many for satirical novels, but this one is caviar, and unique. I have oxymoronically described it as vaguely like a kindly early Evelyn Waugh or a sane Edward St Aubyn, both manifestly impossible. Its tone and setting in contemporary Virginia remind me of photographer Sally Mann’s excellent recent memoir, Hold Still. Its plot is (consciously, according to the author) based on Shakespearian comedy, with a classically perfect ending. The author’s only previously published work evokes an uncommon Eurasian bird, The Wallcreeper.
Any description of the plot sounds like pure farce: it begins when a mostly gay, upper- class southern English prof impregnates a (mostly lesbian, decidedly not rich) young woman and marries her. They have another child, a boy, and break up; fearing for the loss of her daughter, the woman runs and hides in plain sight in a rural corner of the county, squatting in an abandoned house. Here, she hits on the idea which will animate the entire farce; in order to keep and educate her daughter, she will claim and raise her as a rural, legally black child, even though both are blue eyed blondes.
Meanwhile, her brother is being raised to be, among other things, the only kindly frat boy I have ever encountered…
In between you get Native American dope dealers, squirrels, all the possible idiocies of identity politics, a fraternity that admires H P Lovecraft, and more pitch perfect observation of more classes of people than I have ever seen in a single novel, acute but sill somehow KIND.
Those who read as widely as I think my readers do may get a glimpse of how wide a net the author casts in this late scene, where the daughter is explaining to her father how she longs to go to Capri, though she is in college mainly because her (genius nerd actually black) boyfriend was such a prize they sort of comped her in too..
Lee, her father, has just told her he will send her anywhere.
“Anywhere at all?”…
“If it’s Disney and Epcot, summer is out of the question.”…
“Did you ever read Kaputt ?
Lee did not answer, so she went on. “It’s my favorite book. It’s a memoir of World War II by a guy named Curzio Malaparte. He starts out by visiting his friend Axel Munthe on the Isle of Capri, and he thinks his friend Axel is, like, dumb, for caring a lot about birds. But before that, he visits his other friend, King Bernadotte, whose hobby is embroidery.” She pronounced the names “Mallaparty”, “Monthy”, and “Burnadotty”, but Lee did not smile. “He’s the king of Sweden, but what he does all day is, embroider, like, napkins! And then Malaparte goes to the war. And he realizes that people are exactly like birds. They’re innocent bystanders that only an asshole would kill”– and here Karen developed fierce- looking tears in her eyes- “and embroidery is symbolic of the very best part about them. He goes all around the war, seeing beautiful people and animals suffer and die for no reason, but he never looks away. He writes it all down. And in the end he goes back to Capri to build himself this house…”
Her voice slowed as she saw his eyes, which had turned glassy, being squeezed shut. “Dad, why are you crying? Do you think he’s a fascist? Temple says he’s a fascist.”
She lowered her eyes to her empty plate. She saw that to a sophisticate like Lee, reading Malaparte was equal in puerility to eating scabs, and that she would soon be in New York, acquiring modish things to make herself less of a rube.
Lee said, “Don’t mind me. It’s just my life flashing before my eyes. You were raised under a rock, yet your life’s dream is to see the Villa Malaparte. And I realized I must have passed something down to you in my semen after all. The divine spark. It’s the first time in my llfe I ever felt like a man.”
Mislaid, by Nell Zink. A good bad pun, too….