For an interview about The Garden Party on “Under the Radar with Callie Crossley,” on WGBH radio, Click Here
For a review of Hinges in Buried in Print, Click Here
For a review of Hinges by Elizabeth Bachner in Bookslut, Click Here
For two reviews of Hinges in Libary Thing, Click Here
For a review of Hinges by Mel u in The Reading Life, Click Here
For a review of Hinges by Amy Minton in The Collagist, Click Here
For a review of Silk by mel u in The Reading Life, Click Here
SHORT REVIEWS and COMMENTS
Reviews of TRESPASS, A Novel
(See “Longer Reviews” for the complete Washington Post review by Carolyn See and the complete essay by Elizabeth Dodd, both of which excerpted below.)
“Ah, love! Where does it belong in our lives? In the realm of feckless fantasy, or bound by the sterner demands of what we think of as reality? Sooner or later, that naked guy is going to have to put on some clothes and go back to wherever he came from. Even more disconcerting, Maggie, and especially Jake, may have to grow up. But without the giddy summers, wintry life would be miserably hard to take. Eat, drink, be merry, find a naked stranger, [Mazur] suggests. Learn to love what you have, that you may eventually have what you love.”
—Carolyn See, The Washington Post
“Borders in this book are both literally and figuratively fluid, from the tidal estuary of the river to the changing contours of the woods as the forest grows back in the abandoned fields, to the sense of self the characters possess. (…) Setting, for Mazur, presents a complex, living map where characters move among boundaries, testing, challenging, and sometimes changing identities and relationships. Mazur’s evocation of place is richly detailed, combining land with water, the natural with the artificial, the real with the fictional. ”
—Elizabeth Dodd, “Estuary: Boundaries, Bodies, and the Binds that Tie in Grace Dane Mazur’s Novel, Trespass.” (A paper delivered at the fifth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment.) Author of: Like Memory, Caverns: Poems and Prospect: Journeys and Landscapes.
“A tale both titillating and charming. It deserves to grace a beach chair this summer.” *
—Kirkus Reviews, (starred review)
“With each character there is a back story, something that is impossible to portray in a painting or a play or even a poem. There are depth, description, context and landscape. The novel may be the only form that can do justice to the many complexities of love as conundrum. Grace Dane Mazur picks her way through the thicket of her own making with a remarkable lack of superficiality or sentimentality. One would almost be tempted, if the characters were not quite so unhinged, to take it all seriously.”
—Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times
“Mazur has planted and made bloom a garden of words, one delightfully cross-pollinated with love, sex, ideas and beauty. Trespass will make perfect reading for the summer — or for any other season. ”
—Alfred Alcorn, The Boston Herald author of: The Love Potion Murders; Murder in the Museum of Man
“Trespass plays out with traces of Tennessee Williams’s fiery brand of family dysfunction and gardens posed as metaphors for unrequited love…”
—James Reed, The New Bedford Standard-Times
“I longed for the lyricism of Grace Dane Mazur’s wonderful new novel Trespass.”
—From a review of Jane Smiley’s Charles Dickens by Carolyn See
“Trespass is about all kinds of trespass, crossing boundaries and resting on someone else’s property, land, and sexual bodies and souls. A wonderful book.”
—Charles Baxter (Jacket copy for Trespass) author of: The Feast of Love; The Soul Thief
“Trespass is a work rich in both the perverse beauty of estrangement and the rare delicacy of actual connection. Grace Dane Mazur’s prose is at once dense and expansive, idiosyncratic and accessible. This is a wild and remarkable book.”
—Robert Boswell (Jacket copy for Trespass) author of: Century’s Son; American Owned Love
“Trespass burrows magically under the skin and takes up permanent residence there until the last page is read.”
—Richard Russo (Jacket copy for Trespass) author of: The Whore’s Child; Bridge of Sighs
Reviews of SILK: Stories
(For the complete review by Angeline Goureau in the New York Times Sunday Book Review see “Longer Reviews.”
“What Grace Dane Mazur means to suggest, here and elsewhere in the stories of Silk, is that connections between people have a life of their own, doggedly pursuing their own mysterious trajectory. “
—Angeline Goureau, New York Times Sunday Book Review
“Sensually charged and evocative debut collection of 11 stories set in a number of vividly rendered settings, including Paris, Japan, and Malaysia. “
“Mazur’s writing is generously descriptive and lyrical and her dialogue is subtly apt, but most of all it is rare to find a collection that works as coherently as this.”
“…charged with erotic energy. “
—Mary Ellen Quinn, Booklist
“Mazur creates memorable scenes that deftly evoke the senses. An intensely felt collection; highly recommended for public libraries.”
—Vicki Cecil, Library Journal
“Mazur’s stories are blindingly smart and very pleasingly perverse. Their subjects, often international in setting and unconventional…range from that of an old woman on her way to a rendezvous with the infinite in the Paris catacombs, to the complexities of a romantic and mindful affair carried on between a brother and his sister…from Eastern Asia to Cambridge, these silky and sexy stories love the world they describe, and they have enough intelligence and intensity to melt snow.
—Charles Baxter (Jacket copy for Silk)
“Pure delight! Caught in its web, Silk will hold you captive to a feast you’d wish never ended. These stories are at once sensual, heartwarming, entertaining, and wise…”
—Stratis Haviaras (Jacket copy for Silk)
LONG REVIEWS of BOOKS by GRACE DANE MAZUR
NAKED CAME THE STRANGER: Trespass by Grace Dane Mazur
By Carolyn See
The Washington Post Friday, June 21, 2002; Page C05
TRESPASS By Grace Dane Mazur
Graywolf Press. 218 pp. Paperback, $14.95
There’s no business weirder than the publishing business. How else to explain that Trespass, an absolutely charming novel that should be selling this summer in the high, high thousands, has had to limp into the marketplace on the arm of the distinguished but very small Graywolf Press, in a paperback edition, paid for not by hard commercial cash but grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Wells Fargo Foundation. That means a whole lot of people in New York must have been gazing slack-jawed out their windows when this manuscript came by, waiting conscientiously for some terrible summer stinkers so they could go on groaning about how nobody in America buys books any more. It doesn’t matter, of course, but it does mean that Trespass may be relatively hard to find, and that’s too bad, because it’s swell.
Trespass begins in a mid-June summer somewhere near the Massachusetts coast, close to the Cranford River, a landscape replete with tidal marshes, estuaries, bays and the ocean itself. Maggie Gifford, 50 and lovely, lives here quietly with her husband, Hugh, who’s always off on his boat. Their grown children are coming to spend the vacation with them, and Maggie’s looking forward to it. She likes being at the center of her family; indeed, she basks in affection of every kind. Hugh’s crazy about her, as is her cousin and neighbor Jake, who’s been obsessing all his life over strategies for getting Maggie into bed — which is more difficult than it might seem at first glance, since Jake is very fond of Hugh. Also, Jake has a girlfriend of his own, Sally — a better girl than he deserves, since she runs a Volvo dealership and he’s a genuine remittance man, paid by his stuffy family to stay away from home. Jake disdains anything as demanding as work. He’s a mail-order minister; spends his time constructing elaborate gardens and yearning for the beauteous Maggie. Summer is upon them all, and family and friends wait with delicious ease for what will happen next.
What happens is this: Hugh goes off on his boat for a few days. Maggie is strolling through her house, naked on a very hot day, when she hears a noise in the basement. She goes down to check it out and finds an equally naked strange man folded up in her washtub taking a bath. She scrubs his back. After he’s gone, she hastens to confide in Jake, whose summer will become one long panic attack. He’s loved Maggie all his life, and his fantasy has just been dealt a mortal blow by a “real” fantasy, if there can be said to be such a thing: a naked man, ready for anything in these pastoral surroundings, from a free breakfast to a magic evening or anything in between.
Meanwhile, life unfurls as if inside an old-fashioned, elaborately painted pinball machine. Picnics are planned and eaten, quantities of wine consumed. Jake’s various gardens go mad with summer blooms. He officiates at an ill-planned double baptism for twins, a celebration meant to occur on the banks of the beautifully flowing river, but the tide is out and all the participants get covered with slime. Maggie works on some bad poetry, but keeps relatively mum about it because her tempestuous daughter, Gillian, is a “real” poet and apt to be in a bad mood about everything, all the time.
Now here comes Gillian, her sister, Connie, some brothers and husbands and kids. The sun gets hotter, the family dinners widen to include freshly caught fish, a bountiful vegetable harvest, more wine, more wine. Jake pines for Maggie who pines for the naked stranger who by now has had strenuous sex with her and several other ladies — because if this is the inside of a pinball machine he’s the silver ball, rolling, ricocheting, out of control.
It turns out that even someone as sedate as a Volvo dealer can finally get fed up. Sally — or maybe it’s not Sally — poisons Jake’s favorite garden. Gillian does something to drive her mother mad with jealousy and rage. The more tempestuous sex that occurs, the more unbridled passion of every kind is engendered. Jake’s elderly mother, Protestant respectability personified, will, herself, risk all for love.
Ah, love! Where does it belong in our lives? In the realm of feckless fantasy, or bound by the sterner demands of what we think of as reality? Sooner or later, that naked guy is going to have to put on some clothes and go back to wherever he came from. Even more disconcerting, Maggie, and especially Jake, may have to grow up. But without the giddy summers, wintry life would be miserably hard to take. Eat, drink, be merry, find a naked stranger, this novelist suggests. Learn to love what you have, that you may eventually have what you love.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
ESTUARY: Boundaries, Bodies, and the Binds that Tie in Grace Dane Mazur’s Novel, Trespass
by Elizabeth Dodd
Dept. of English
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506
Charles Baxter has it almost exactly right in his advance praise for Grace Dane Mazur’s first novel, Trespass. He says the book “is about all kinds of trespass, crossing boundaries and resting on someone else’s property, land, and sexual bodies and souls.” The novel recounts a summer at Maggie Gifford’s ancestral farm site, situated adjacent to the fictional Cranford River and the Massachusetts shore. Questions of identity and infidelity plague Maggie’s extended family throughout the summer, when a strange man named Grenville arrives as a sort of interloper, “borrowing” food and shelter and seducing two generations of women. (His first appearance, in fact, is when he shows up in Maggie’s basement, taking a bath in her laundry sink, and taking her greatly by surprise.)
Mazur does, indeed, explore all kinds of boundary-crossings, often resorting to figures of invasion, symbols of encroachment. However, her language often suggests that “boundaries” are not nearly so fixed as Baxter’s quotation might suggest. Baxter focuses on “boundary” as a cultural geographer might, identifying “the dividing line between one spatial unit or group and another” (Dictionary of Human Geography52). This view of boundary is shared by at least some of the characters, as well, and supports the title’s emphasis on trespass, or transgression. But the geographer’s view is only partial. Borders in this book are both literally and figuratively fluid, from the tidal estuary of the river to the changing contours of the woods as the forest grows back in the abandoned fields, to the sense of self the characters possess. Another, helpful view of boundaries is that of the ecologist. For this novel’s landscape is distinguished by the ecotone, or the border where two different types of habitat meet and mingle, which is “transitional” and usually a richly productive location. This is true metaphorically within the novel. Setting, for Mazur, presents a complex, living map where characters move among boundaries, testing, challenging, and sometimes changing identities and relationships. Mazur’s evocation of place is richly detailed, combining land with water, the natural with the artificial, the real with the fictional.
The Beecher family farm, outside the town of Cranford, borders the estuarine Cranford River, comprising fields and gardens, woods and tidal mud flats. As Mazur herself explains, “Cranford and its river are fictional places, inserted between the actually adjacent towns of Westport and South Dartmouth, Massachusetts… I chose Cranford as a name because of the ‘ford’–a place where one can easily trespass, as the river loses there its bounding” (e-mail).
Originally, the farm was a single unit. Maggie and her cousin Jake inherited the land from their grandparents, so it is now divided into two separate, adjacent parcels, where the cousins live side by side, Maggie with her husband Hugh, and Jake with his gardens–he has “avoided getting married” (27), though he has dated an installation artist-turned-car dealer named Sally for the last decade. Jake believes he is deeply in love with Maggie, but has carried this secret burden for years without acting on it; he considers Maggie’s husband, Hugh, to be his best friend. Jake cherishes his close relationship with Maggie and Hugh, especially since he is estranged from his parents and siblings, and receives regular remittance payments on the condition that he never step foot again in his hometown, Newport, Rhode Island. Each summer Maggie’s family–grown children and grandchildren–return to the farm for an extended holiday. The influx of their arrival occasions certain re-negotiations of place and province. Tony, the eldest child, still lives in the area and feels each summer “that his siblings and their spouses were interlopers…” Like his uncle Jake, he keeps “to the edge of things” (52), while Maggie sets out to ready house and land for their arrival in a flurry of activity, “obsessed with order” (42). She removes the poison ivy that has “crept everywhere” (42); she thinks that “the first glance of the place was important” for her family: “it would form the frame of the whole summer for them” (43).
Maggie herself frames her impressions of people the same way. She tries to recover her sense of balance after the sudden, dual oddities of finding a naked man taking a bath in her basement, and of her own behavior in offering to scrub his back. She is home alone, wandering naked in the secluded house because it is a warm day, and she resents being made to feel vulnerable. “It was her house. She was in place, he was out of place. Let him cover himself” (4). Instead he departs, still naked, and leaves her unsettled and intrigued, “wondering what she had done” (8). Only a few days later he reappears, this time fully clothed. “Do you come up from the river? Or do you come in from the road?” she asks (24). She wishes thereby to place him, to assign him either of a pair of identities: land or water.
It turns out the man is a former real estate agent who also likes the concept of clear identity and boundary, at least for others. He seems to carry in his mind an old-fashioned map with landowners names attached to particular tracts of land, as if they “belong” to a place in a pattern, rather than vice versa. As he tells Maggie, “I know every property around here between the interstate and the sea. I know who belongs to which land” (46). But for himself he casts aside such notions of identity. He has a string of names–John Hiram Stuart Grenville, though he goes most often by only two of these, Stu or Grenville. And he explains to Maggie that he has “just stepped out of things”–left his job, his wife, his life, without any notice or explanation. “Mainly,” he says, “I’ve been borrowing places […] Unused fishing boats, sailboats. Houses for sale, cabins, shacks” (49).
Maggie scolds Grenville for his behavior, because of its philosophical and ethical implications.
“This is ridiculous. Your walking away makes the world seem so fragile, you make it seem unbuffered, as though any little tap could shatter everything.” She knocked with her wedding ring against one of the small panes in the window behind her, its white paint peeling off the sash. She half expected the glass to craze and collapse, but though it shifted in its frame, it stayed whole. […] “This is wrong; these ideas are stupid and cruel. You are wanton. Loss is everywhere. We don’t have to manufacture loss: it rains down on us.” (49)
Mazur’s imagery emphasizes that the “world” of which Maggie speaks is the human and the domestic: the world of houses and property and family. Maggie wishes to “place” Grenville, and by his behavior he continually resists such placement, rejecting it as limiting. “Haven’t you ever wanted to step out?” he asks her softly (49).
He is a transgressor, a trespasser, a violator of social boundaries. As the summer progresses, he hangs about the farm, evidently sleeping in the loft of an old boathouse, occasionally helping himself to food or tools, and eventually initiating an affair with Maggie. “Your husband is always going off sailing,” he says to her. “When I see [him] go off on his boat, I’ll give you a call and ask if you’re ready” (50). When he does, she is, and goes off with him overnight in a boat he has “borrowed” somewhere. Later still, he encounters Maggie’s daughter Gillian, who has brought along a boyfriend for the summer’s visit, but spends most of her time ignoring him, and she, too, becomes Grenville’s secret lover.
In the deceit of her affair, Maggie loses sight of what has been previously most important in her life. As she explains to Jake, “ I forgot Hugh, I forgot the children, I forgot the farm […]” (87). She becomes, herself, a trespasser, going so far as to visit Grenville’s wife, Denise, on the pretext of taking some kind of citizen survey, and then revealing that she knows the whereabouts of her vanished husband. Denise Grenville responds with clarity and fury. “I didn’t invite you over here. You come in here. Into my kitchen. […] You are a creep and a shit and I want you out of here” (115). The violation of this visit takes place on many levels, one of which is literally place: Maggie enters Denise’s house, sits in her kitchen, and even accidentally breaks a coffee pot, thoroughly insinuating herself into Denise’s domestic space before revealing that she’s not who she has pretended to be. When she finally does make this revelation, she gives Denise her address and telephone number, realizing even as she does so that “she had banished privacy; she might as well have built her house of glass. Denise could drive up at any time. What had she done?” (118).
First Grenville, and then Maggie, are characters whose views of themselves and of others can be played out upon a social map, a geography of constructed identities. Their notions of place are tied to social identity, and vice versa; when they grow restless, they act out, and act out of character. The trouble is, says Mazur, “Sometimes we do things that are not us. But once we do such a thing it becomes and defines us […] driven by passion or possession or divine inspiration, we continue, and only afterwards, exhausted, ponder what has happened” (3). Maggie’s cousin, Jake Beecher, also acts out, and has a history of doing so, as his current black-sheep-banished-from-the-family-status suggests. But he is different from Grenville and Maggie, and perhaps from whom he used to be. He has become a keen student of human behavior, and is the novel’s best listener to others. As he listens to Maggie’s growing obsession with Grenville, he cautions her not to emulate the man’s “jumping out of one’s normal life”: “look what it did to him,” he tells her. “It ruined him. He can’t go back” (87).
Despite his keen interest in other people, reflected in the kind of secular ministry he practices, as well as in his sensitivity to Maggie and her family members, Jake’s position in the novel is more ecologically than geographically figured. Jake is “a man of the edges and shallows, the swampy places […] the rich shifting boundary, which had freed itself from definition as earth or water” (10). He haunts the river and its. He runs a canoe livery, and spends Sundays on family boat trips in unfrequented areas where “the river presents tributaries and offshoots […] and you suddenly wonder who you are and why” (64).
Despite his uncertainties, Jake is our guide throughout the strange summer events and the passions that drive them. For one of the novel’s boundary-crossings is structural: although the opening chapter confines point of view to Maggie, and subsequent chapters alternate between Maggie and Jake, by the mid-way point the novel’s narration is thoroughly allied with Jake. A mail-order minister without a creed, a nurturant man without a family, Jake searches for order and meaning. He finds these in the landscape where he lives; though neither is static, order and meaning both are present if you look, and then accommodate yourself to what you find. His view of life is ecological, as is his reading of human nature, as he examines the interrelatedness of life.
Morning and evening–the periods of the day that are mixtures of day and night, dark and light–are another example of the way Jake favors margins, borders that are also transitions. Each morning, early, he walks down “to salute the river,” and in the evening he returns “to put it to bed.” He stands there “long enough to be present, to face it, to stay” (12), thereby, in his daily ritual, seeking to develop a kind of site fidelity, what in the language of biology is called “philopatry.”
Jake recognizes the importance of maintaining balance, or ecological stability, and of accommodating oneself to the strictures of place. When a neighboring family asks him to baptize their new twin daughters, he agrees with some misgivings. “The Leacocks insisted on 11 a.m., so that they can go back to their house and have a big lunch party afterward. I told them that the tide would be dead low at the head of the river. They wouldn’t listen” (100). Indeed, the Leacocks are interested in artificial pageantry; they are absurdly dressed in late 19th-century-attire and plan to document the event with a series of photographs, beginning with their picturesque arrival at the river landing in punts and canoes. The low water turns the entire scene into slapstick comedy: babies dropped in the mud, one of them baptized twice and the other not at all. Jake was right: the event should have been timed around the river’s schedule, and the tide’s. Later that day, as he listens to Maggie’s daughter Gillian tell of her frustration and confusion over an affair with a man who, he realizes with alarm, must be Grenville, Jake directs her into his flower garden to show her the beauty that is rooted there. “These are what I know,” he tells her. “These are what I think important. I throw them at you to get you to look at them, but you ignore them” (110).
However, despite his best intentions and his sensitivity toward others, Jake is not a paragon of balance and ethics. In that very same garden he feels himself “clobbered” by Gillian’s sexuality and reaches for her, kisses and rolls with her among the flowers, only to look up and find his girlfriend Sally watching. Jake learns where Grenville’s truck is parked, and in a fit of nightmarish, though humorously described, rage and violence, he dismantles and wrecks the vehicle. Shortly after both these incidents, Jake finds that his flower garden is dying, as if deliberately poisoned by someone wishing him ill.
Despite his predilections for liminality, Jake comes to realize that one must live deliberately, making choices that one can actually live with. His mother calls, most unexpectedly, and he finds a way to mend his broken relationship with her. She helps him understand what has happened to his garden–someone must have deliberately poisoned it, but who? She decides the pollutant must be Roundup. “Such a benign sort of weed killer,” she explains. “It kills the present […] but not the future. Or not much of the future; that is you still might want to truck out the surface of your soil” (179). She thinks recovery is possible.
Maggie has also brought harm to herself, through her affair with Grenville. While out swimming with him, she is badly stung by a Portuguese man-of-war, and Grenville brings her to Jake for help. Jake knows that the siphonophores are not native to those beaches–they have blown in from elsewhere. He also manages to give her first aid while awaiting a doctor; the only one available, in a marvelous twist of irony, turns out to be Denise Grenville. With the poison of her own behavior removed from her fevered body, Maggie returns to her own self. She burns the boathouse, the site of Grenville’s various trysts, ritually cleansing her land. Denise and Grenville leave the farm together, though it is highly uncertain whether they will be able to restore their marriage. Grenville acknowledges, “There may always be this imbalance of harm” (212).
Jake, however, makes his peace with Sally, acknowledging that he has hurt her. And though one could believe that, figuratively, Jake himself had poisoned his garden with his own behavior, his future with Sally is not destroyed, just as his mother predicted. As the couple watch summer turn to fall and enjoy their lives together, Jake revises his ideas of love and marriage, and his model is once again the river. “The wonder is that we believe in buoyancy enough to ever dare leap into any of these dark pools. It is a branching thing–love–meandering, looping off, coming together again, with more hidden channels and tributaries than we can ever know” (218).
As an ecosystem–as habitat–an estuary is a stressful environment, full of changes both rhythmic (tidal, daily, monthly) and abrupt (storm- or flood-related). It is highly productive, and fosters diversity, but is prone to unpredictable change. “We think the rule is tranquility,” Mazur writes. “But, in fact, the rule is tranquility-with-disruptions. Disruptions are part of the pattern, like the rocks in the stream around which eddies form” (85). The question for all the characters in Trespassis, what will be the result of the disruption? This question bears a close connection to the insight philosopher Jim Cheney offers in his article, “Postmodern Environmental Ethics: Ethics as Bioregional Narrative.” Says Cheney, “Culturally understood conceptions of self […] must come to articulate individual experience without being imposed on individuals in a way that sets up psychic splits. The language must also articulate a process of human interaction with the land which ensures the health of both the land and the community” (121). Cheney describes “a discourse or narrative of relation to place,” favoring “narrative as the means for locating oneself in a moral space out of which a whole and healthy self, community, and earth can emerge” (127). His emphasis, of course, is not merely on the sense of self, but on self-in-relation-to-environment, that is, ecological relationship. The narrative in Trespass does just this, insisting upon the simultaneous “discourses” of both social boundaries and ecological relationships, with Jake as the character who most clearly reflects a quest for moral and healthy “location.”
(This is the text of a paper delivered at the fifth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. )
Cheney, Jim. “Postmodern Environmental Ethics: Ethics as Bioregional Narrative.” Environmental Ethics 11 (1989): 117-134.
Dictionary of the Environment. 2nd ed. Ed. Michael Allaby,. New York: New York U P, 1983.
Dictionary of Human Geography. 4th ed. Ed. R.J. Johnston, Derek Gregory, Geraldine Pratt, & Michael Watts. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.
Mazur, Grace Dane. E-mail to the author. 4 May 2003
—. Trespass. St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2002.
LONG REVIEWS of SILK
New York Times Sunday Book Review November 17, 1996
FORBIDDEN FRUIT By ANGELINE GOREAU
By Grace Dane Mazur.
237 pp. Lumen Editions, Brookline Books
Box 1047, Cambridge, Mass. 02238
Sexual awakening is surely among the most difficult of subjects in fiction: by the time you are grown up enough to write about it, you’ve lost the perspective you once saw it from, to say nothing of the particulars. Grace Dane Mazur, in the first story of ”Silk,” gives us as fresh a rendering of a young woman’s coming of age as any I’ve read — or read lately, at least. She is good, too, at mapping out the complex geography of family life, calling up with convincing detail what it’s like to be a child doing the hard work of sorting through the inscrutabilities of adult behavior.
Some of the mysteries that Cass, the child in question, encounters are easily comprehensible to a more experienced eye: there’s a mattress in the basement that moves perplexingly from place to place in the cellar she likes to play in, always coming to rest in the room with a lock on the door. But there are also some inscrutables that would be fairly peculiar by any measure: Aunt Marika goes out into the woods, hitches up her skirts (to reveal that she doesn’t wear underwear), walks out onto the branch of a willow tree and dips her buttocks into very cold water, swaying back and forth, humming to herself. It’s never clear whether Aunt Marika sees her 10-year-old niece watching from her hiding place in the bushes, but if she does, she doesn’t let on. This odd little ritual, incredibly enough, is repeated every day. Soon, Cass is jumping naked into the water herself and beginning to mentally undress the other members of her family at the dinner table. Her mother, arriving just in time for the soup, prompts this reflection: “She too had a body, now, under her dress, and my mind stripped her as she walked, with the stiffness of new sadness, to her chair.” Cass imagines her father,”dark and hairy and surprising under the table,” and her teen-age cousins, seated at the end of the table, are transmogrified into “a raucous heap, teeming with breasts and thighs and legs, testicles and penises.”
This skates perilously close to the ridiculous, but it doesn’t read that way in the context of the story. Part of the reason is that Cass’s perceptions are grounded in other narrative preoccupations: she shows other characters dealing with the consequences of death, drawing boundaries, keeping secrets, dissolving a marriage. Ms. Mazur builds her story with such assured precision, layering color and texture, finely balancing showing and telling, that we are thoroughly on her side by the time we get to this semi-comical climax.
The characters introduced in this first story reappear in different guises throughout the interwoven narratives that make up the first half — by far the better half — of the book. One of the subjects Ms. Mazur deals with most interestingly through her shifting group portrait is the radical operation of time on perspective. When we next see Cass, she is 22, staying at her Aunt Marika’s apartment in Paris, sitting for her portrait. The intuitive kinship she once felt for her exotic aunt has been replaced by a cool mistrust: “Living with her now, she finds her aunt surprisingly and intractably foreign.” Cass retrieves her earlier feeling by a strangely circuitous route, falling into an affair with Marika’s lover, a Polish emigre named Stasek. The climax, once again, is precipitated by a howler of a dinner-table scene, in which Stasek shows Cass how to hide the raw pig fat Aunt Marika’s crazy friend is urging upon her.
Poaching her aunt’s lover is only the beginning of the liberties Cass takes with her relatives, however. Within a few short pages she is sliding into bed with her own brother, Thomas. None of these couplings is in the least premeditated; they seem merely to metabolize, independently of will or volition. The catalyst in the case of Thomas is an obscenely large thorny fruit from Malaysia, ”more reptilian than vegetal, like the egg a dinosaur might lay.”# Unable to think of an appropriate birthday present, Cass buys the fruit from a Vietnamese grocery, mistakenly understanding its name to be “de rien”(“of nothing”). Her brother, delighted with the gift, explains that it is called “durian,” and requires ripening: “There is a stretch of nine hours when the taste of this kind of durian is at its peak. Before that, it’s sour, and after, it’s fermented.” When the dangerous fruit finally comes into its own, it proves to be of decidedly mixed character — smelling powerfully of swamp, but endowed with the heavenly taste of peaches and almonds. The flesh is so divinely sensual that “it felt forbidden to be fingering it.”
Ms. Mazur is clearly revisiting the Garden of Eden here, but with a modern twist: there are no consequences (not consequences, at least, as the Old Testament would have defined them). Thomas and Cass go on sleeping together for a year, until she gets pregnant, has an abortion and discovers that she has fallen in love with someone else. In a brief aside, she mentions feeling guilty, but there’s not much evidence elsewhere in the story (or stories, since the narrative covers more than one of them) to support this.
What Grace Dane Mazur means to suggest, here and elsewhere in the stories of Silk, is that connections between people have a life of their own, doggedly pursuing their own mysterious trajectory. The skillful marshaling of sensuous detail is intended to emphasize the strong connection to nature. This is what happens when we follow our instincts, Silk seems to assert. The question lurking behind these stories might be framed thus: What happens if we jettison all givens and allow nature to take its course, letting the senses come first? It’s a question that has been asked before, and since the 1960’s we’ve seen some of the consequences of trying it out. Few of these are acknowledged here, however. I can’t help feeling that there is a large degree of selfishness in the odd insouciance that many of Ms. Mazur’s heroines affect.
And despite the interesting writing and delightfully entertaining comic moments, I am grateful that I can close the book and keep the self-centered churls inside. Well, some of them at least.
Angeline Goreau’s books include Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn and The Whole Duty of a Woman: Female Writers in Seventeenth-Century England.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company