(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann OCT 30, 2005)
The starkness of 1925 New Hampshire, even during its most bountiful season, preys upon the characters in Kirstin Allio's lyrical debut novel about a small, sail-shaped town and the tragedy that defines it. The residents of Garner are wedded to the land and the ways of a life hardened by near-perpetual winter. Even during the summer months, the women have little time for leisure and social connections, squeezing them in wherever they can. The men harvest hay and go about their business with grim determination. In the midst of this serious town with Puritanical roots, young Frances Giddens, an independent teenager in love with the freedom the woods and streams offer her, embodies the mixed blessings of such an environment. She longs to live a writer's life, free of men and the demands of being a wife, beholden only to her own thoughts and ambitions, even though she doesn't want to leave the land she loves. Because of this dual longing, she is both smitten with and disdainful of the summer boarders from the city who inhabit her family's house.
In the opening pages, Frances is found by the town postman, Willard Heald, floating face up in the aptly named Blood Brook, drowned. The circumstances surrounding Frances's death constitute the bulk of Allio's subtly moving novel. Told in fragments that often read like prose poems, the narrative is not straightforward and instead skirts the truth like a wary coyote. As Frances writes in her diary, "secrets . . . are the shadows of the plain truth between us." Allio employs multiple points-of-view that together form the portrait of the town and its inhabitants as well as the truth behind Frances's death. Willard Heald's documentation, both real and imagined, of Garner, its history, and its inhabitants tells of a man obsessed and yet willing to fabricate. The summer boarder Malin's fascination with Frances's wildness betrays her lack of understanding and reveals her as the blind romantic she is. Mrs. Heald's suspicions about her husband's lengthy walks contrast with the ease she finds when strolling with her first female companion in a long time, the city woman turned country wife, Vivian. Frances herself reveals a passionate self even as she knows her dreams cannot possibly come true. The other characters are seen through the eyes of the preceding four: the summer boarders, including Malin's beau Robert Yates; the old hermit Abbot who grieves for his land as much as he did his wife; the Giddens family; and, in splintered portraits, the other residents of Garner.
Although Frances's life and death form the center of Garner, it is Heald who is its gatekeeper: "Heald knew that no wood or stone or (by God even) iron barrier defined a town so surely as the correspondence its citizens sent and received. No surveyor's maps in drawers at the Town Office could so exactly delineate." All outside communication must pass through Heald, who takes it upon himself to decide whether someone should receive or post a specific letter. He hides truth from the town in a way no one else can. The residents are ignorant of his power, and they treat him almost as an outsider, someone quiet who sits on the edge of their gatherings, a solitary man. In this way, Heald finds his way into Frances's soul, knowing her in ways no one else does. Heald's stealth ends up being both his strength and his undoing.
Allio's prose can be demanding since no word or image is wasted, and she leaves the reader to piece together the story from the poetic details she provides. The author cuts expertly to the hearts of her characters, as in a description of Mrs. Heald when "she knew he was writing about the death of Frances Giddens. She had come across a discarded paragraph: 'What Might Have Unfolded,' and it had irked her intensely that her husband should imagine the fortune of another woman's life. She recalled herself, not one week into marriage, laying out the contents of her hope chest on the unfamiliar double bed. Would she wish such a moment on the girl Frances? When unfolded, her dreams looked like dish towels and pillow shams and runners and doilies." This quick characterization reveals more about a single character than many writers are able to convey in pages. Other passages are more cryptic as Allio splices moments and quotes from different times to punctuate another scene; however, whether the author is describing a woodland or a person or even a roundabout truth, she writes with gorgeous precision. Readers will be well rewarded by sticking with her, to see where the meandering journey through the roads and paths of Garner will take them.
Composed of keen observations, a strong sense of setting, and an underlying sense of dread, Garner is an impressive debut. Allio's unconventional approach to a death and the circumstances that enabled it mark her as a literary talent to watch.
- Amazon readers rating: from 3 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Garner (September 2005)
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About the Author:
Kirstin Allio has taught creative writing at Brown University and holds degrees from Brown and New York Universities. Born in Maine, she lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and sons.