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BOOKS: Mom’s Horror

3 minute read
John Skow

Anyone who has given hostages to fortune by marrying and having children knows ! that the normal 3 a.m. horrors take on an astonishing new awfulness under those conditions. Nightmares of the crippling disease, the car crash, the sociopath bedevil the spouse and parent. And they do so, for some reason, in perverse proportion to how healthy, loving and prosperous a family really is.

Though it is not explicitly acknowledged, this torment seems to have been the inspiration for A Map of the World (Doubleday; 390 pages; $22), a mischievous and unsettling marital melodrama by Jane Hamilton, whose first novel, The Book of Ruth, won the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award. Hamilton introduces us to Alice and Howard Goodwin, a handsome Wisconsin couple — she a school nurse, he a dairy farmer — who are the parents of two little girls and who could be exhibited at the state fair in the perfect-marriage pavilion.

If this were a western, such peacefulness would signal “Apaches!” Sure enough, disaster befalls. While Alice is tending her own and a neighbor’s kids, the neighbor’s two-year-old tumbles into a pond and is pulled out brain dead. A second calamity follows, as Alice is accused of sexual abuse by the mother of one schoolboy and then by the parents of several others. She is blameless, but so shaken that her denials sound like admissions, and she is jailed to await trial.

As happens in a bad dream, both Goodwins are nearly paralyzed by their terrible fate; Alice sleeps 20 hours a day. And there is another similarity to the skewed reality of nightmares. At the edges of the reader’s field of vision, backdrops are unpainted and sets only sketchily built. There is no strong sense of sheltering farm, disapproving town or world beyond the Goodwins’ tragedy, and this intensifies the reader’s unease because there is no broader reality to which to escape.

This would be soap opera if the author were not unusually good at transforming acute, intuitive perceptions into sentences. Writing, this is called. Alice, half cracked, notices an overweight townswoman: “Her partially exposed freckled bosom, confined in its pushup bra, was barking and whining to get out.” She slaps a hostile child: “He had absorbed the blow. It was as if the sting had gone right to a spot inside where he stored his wounds.” And here is Alice’s tiny daughter putting a clammy hand on her arm and trying to console her: “When I was your mom and you were a baby, I beed sweet and nice.” This is very good stuff by a novelist whose momentum seems unstoppable.

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