Books: Sorrows

3 minute read
Stefan Kanfer

IN ANOTHER COUNTRY by Susan Kenney Viking; 163 pages; $13.95

At the age of eleven, Sara is taken to a circus sideshow. There she is confronted with something inexplicable to a child and incomprehensible to her father:

a freak born without limbs. “Does she have no arms and legs really?” the girl asks. The reply is reassuring and false: “It’s all done with mirrors.”

The words might be inscribed on the family’s coat of arms. For Sara’s par ents, tragedy in any form is something stage-managed and therefore bogus. But as Susan Kenney, 43, indicates in her terse and precisely felt novel, even self-deceit, the most durable fiction of all, must have an end. Sara takes some 25 years to learn that sorrows cannot all be explained away, and that in a life truly lived, grief and loss accumulate like possessions.

The lessons are painfully acquired.

Sara’s father dies soon after that day at the circus, and her mother retreats into insanity. Sara marries happily, but the years are blighted by her husband’s long bout against cancer. Even her children’s beloved dog perishes. The catalogue of miseries seems to cry out for commercial spots and a station break: the stuff of noonday soap opera. But Kenney, a professor of creative writing at Colby College in Maine, knows two essential truths about melodrama: first that it is most powerful when combined with irony and understatement; and second that it is a salient feature of modern life. Nothing in these six connected stories seems overdrawn or out of place. The metaphors of cold, echoing corridors, of looking glasses and toys have a lightness about them, but for the most part, Kenney is content to let the feelings ride on the facts.

Sara’s demented mother is observed “knitting, with a serene, satisfied look on her face, as though she’s finally got everything figured out and there’s nothing to run and hide from any more.” The collie “was our first and in his eyes remained our only child, was one of us, never seeming to take in the fact that he was much the furriest and generally though not always ate and slept on the floor.” Her husband’s surgeon is described as “Big Bird wrapped in green Kleenex, peering and blinking everywhere except at me, which I do not interpret as a good sign.” She watches the machine at her husband’s bedside: “Digital numbers flash—two-twenty. Is that possible? A pulse rate of two-twenty? . . . Slow down, I mutter to the machine, to the frenzied fist inside his chest, willing the tinsel line to unfur itself a little.”

Ultimately Sara decides that “this is what I’ve learned about the dead: It is not always their absence that haunts us.” The presence of the vanished dog, of the hospitalized husband, of the long-gone father is conveyed in odd, occasional glimpses and echoes that bring back the absent and the lost. It is an observation that could be made only by a woman who has learned how to regard the world, and by a writer who has learned how to record it.

—By Stefan Kanfer

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