Friday, February 18, 2011

Spilling Secrets: Easing the Pain for Two Guilty Women in Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water


     How long can you keep a secret? Will you give yourself away in a thoughtless phrase or a nervous laugh? Will guilt break your silence? Or can you bottle it up, cork the top, and set your secret adrift at sea for decades until, eventually, time washes it back to your door and demands that you pour it out?
     The two narrators in Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel, The Weight of Water, both have secrets, and circumstances have forced them both to uncork the stoppers and splash out all the messy details. “I have to let this story go,” opens Jean. And her counterpart, Maren, of nearly 100 years earlier begins her own memoir, “I mean with these pages… that the truth shall be known.” Neither will find absolution, for they are both soaked in “hurt that stories cannot ease, not with a thousand tellings.” But the weight that has burdened them for so long compels them to confess, although finding peace may be a hopeless cause.
     On assignment for a magazine in the 1990’s, Jean has been hired to take photographs of Smuttynose Island, the setting of two 1873 murders. She has turned the job into a vacation, bringing along her husband and small daughter, and convincing Rich, her brother-in-law, and his latest girlfriend, Adaline, to ferry them to the island in his Morgan. Over the two-day excursion, Jean watches as Thomas, her husband, hits it off with the mesmerizing Adaline and fights the rising jealousy she feels for the younger woman. In response, she finds herself drawn to Rich, Thomas’s endearing brother who also sees the mounting interest between the other two adults. In the middle of this tension is young Billie, “an effervescence that wants to bubble up and pop out of the top of the bottle,” a little girl who makes pancakes and collects mussels and likes to have her picture taken. Between lobster dinners and swims in the ocean, the five people on the Morgan must find a balance between love and hate, between knowledge and ignorance.
     This microcosm of life on the sailboat echoes the cramped life that Maren Hontvedt lived on Smuttynose more than 100 years earlier. Maren, a young Norwegian wife who came to New England with her new husband, arrived on “shallow and barren” Smuttynose in 1868 moving into a small house “of an entirely unadorned style…, and quite gloomy.” Within a few years, Maren’s toughened spinster sister and her beloved brother and his new wife had joined the family from Norway, and Maren and her husband made room in their home. The inevitable tensions of extended family became more pronounced in the tight quarters, and Maren found herself often in the middle. After five years on the island, catastrophe dismantled the family when Karen and Anethe, Maren’s sister and sister-in-law, were brutally murdered in the Hontvedt home while the men were away on the mainland. This is the famous story Jean has come to Smuttynose to investigate.
     Maren was the only witness of the murders and recorded her whole story, including an account of the murders, in a yellowed, dusty document which lay long forgotten in the Portsmouth Athenaeum for many years. Jean finds the manuscript, learns the truth about the long-ago crime, and becomes the sole recipient of Maren’s confessions, while simultaneously watching her own life churn into a frothy storm. It seems inevitable that the two stories will find their common end in catastrophe.
     The text of Shreve’s novel flows through several pages of Maren’s ancient narrative, then to a few hours of Jean’s life, and back to Maren’s words with barely an interrupting ripple. Facts about the island and transcripts of dialogue from the murder trial bob in and out of the story, painting the both the historical background and the setting. Despite all this juxtaposition, the novel reads easily. Jean and Maren are linked by jealousy and guilt, themes that span the centuries. With these emotions to connect them, their parallel stories become a single tale. Maren Hontvedt’s life, as read by Jean Janes, and the life of Jean herself collide like swells in an ocean storm. Slow to rise, almost imperceptible until the whitecaps crest up into foam, the stories mirror one another all the way up to their crashing ends.
     “If you take a woman and push her to the edge,” Jean wonders, “how will she behave?” The Weight of Water provides a disheartening answer at best. As each woman tries to assuage the guilt that plagues her, she finds no relief. Not even confession can ease the hurt and, ultimately, the same sins will be repeated, though 100 years may pass. Shreve gets to the heart of a woman’s pain, but the reader may not like what she finds there. Just as Jean must decide what to do with the weighty confession passed to her from Maren Hontvedt, so also the reader of The Weight of Water must turn the final page with Jean’s own guilt on her hands.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

All His Eggs in One Basket: David Benioff’s Literary Gamble with City of Thieves

    The premise of David Benioff’s second novel, City of Thieves, is as absurd as they come. Two Russians, arrested by the Germans for petty crimes during the WWII German occupation of Russia, are offered a deal: in exchange for their lives, they must provide the colonel with a dozen eggs. Accepting the mission, Lev and Kolya set off across the famine-ridden frozen wasteland with high hopes. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But Benioff’s simple tale capitalizes on the complexity of friendship and the escapist pleasure of the quest novel. With confident Kolya, the “great salesman, especially when he was selling himself,” and the overly self-conscious narrator Lev, even a hopeless quest for elusive eggs remains entertaining.
    Although primarily lighthearted, City takes on an eerie aura with “German corpses falling from the sky; cannibals selling sausage links made from ground human; apartment blocks collapsing to the ground; and dogs becoming bombs.” Despite this, however, the novel provides an excellent weekend getaway book. Such shocking scenes seem almost mythical, lending a larger-than-life quality to the novel. In the peculiar quest of Lev and Kolya, even the most bizarre events seem right at home. Reality and fantasy blur into a whirling cycle of dreamlike dance and vivid nightmare.
    Rounding out the cast of characters are the tomboy sniper Vika, her posse of Russian resistance fighters, and the German villains. Vika provides the love interest, one that becomes appropriately sticky with triangulated affections, and the host of enemy leaders – from Colonel Grechko who sits as his desk drawing X’s on his notepad to bulky chess-playing Commander Abendroth – spice up the pages of City while complicating things for its heroes. Love and war flit across the pages, interspersed with somber reflections on the potential immediacy of death, a balance that allows City of Thieves to be action-packed while retaining complexity.
    Among all this drama, Benioff’s prose elicits a surprising combination of grins and grimaces. The extreme desperation Benioff builds up at the beginning of the novel frightens readers into submission in the violent environment of Russia. Lev admits to “spending spare minutes hunting rats” to quell his hunger and buys “library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars.” The cold weather compounds the desperate situation of starvation. Moving through the wasteland, “the cold was a greater danger than the Germans” to Lev and Kolya; Lev’s fingertips were numb even with “thick wool mittens and hands shoved into the pockets of his overcoat.” Lev’s miserable plight causes readers to shiver with each page turn and long for a mere hard-boiled egg to satisfy the hungry ache.
    The harsh winter misery is somewhat assuaged by Kolya’s charming attempts to be the older brother figure to young Lev. “You’re a virgin, aren’t you,” Kolya asks. And thus the stage is set for Kolya’s sexual education of young Lev. With anecdotes of his personal love life providing the basis for advice, Kolya takes it upon himself to instruct Lev in the ways of women. Lev proves a willing pupil, although an uncomfortable one, and the dynamic between these two men provides a diversion – for them and for readers – from the dangerous task at hand. Although Benioff includes some measure of gratuitous sexual content in the course of this subplot, the mentor role of Kolya allows him to gain respect from even squeamish readers. Who but the heroic-looking blondie Kolya could get away with such indelicacy yet remain so likable?
    Benioff’s narrator, Lev, couldn’t be more different from confident Kolya. Lev typifies the self-conscious youth. While about to face hand-to-hand combat with eight Germans, Lev finds himself reflecting on how foolish he must look with a wimpy knife in his hand. He fears sex because “the geometry of the act confuses him.” Lev has a sensitive soul, one unaccustomed to sharing feelings or thoughts with anyone. He also possesses a reflective imagination that enhances his sensations of loneliness and discomfort on his long trek. Lev imagines himself and his companions as “a band of enchanted mice, marching beneath the chalked moon on the blackboard sky.” He also admits to feeling slow and exhausted during the journey, feeling like “someone had poured thick syrup into a hole in my skull.” 
    Kolya represents the polar opposite of Lev’s vulnerability, rarely revealing any fear or weakness. The self-assured, dominant Kolya leads Lev into maturity in the span of one week, referring to the timid boy affectionately as “little lion,” and showing confidence in the boy despite the frightful circumstances. Behind his tough-guy fa├žade, Kolya hides a natural storyteller, an insightful intellectual who rarely shuts up. With only Lev to listen, Kolya resembles “a senile grandfather” who repeats his memorized stories over and over again to family dinner parties. Senile, maybe. But endearing nonetheless.
    Although Kolya and Lev both possess enjoyable quirks and form an engaging duo throughout the novel, neither protagonist offers much by way of originality; both are classic examples of stock characters. Character development happens naturally, but a bit too predictably. For a quick action read, though, Benioff’s characters serve their purpose.
    Benioff’s recent screenwriting experience is obvious in City of Thieves, which reads like a film script: a well-paced quest journey and the struggle to survive. Although the terrain of Russia is unfamiliar to most readers, the story does not require understanding of the novel’s locale. The haunting images of a frozen dead soldier, marking the road like a signpost, and a farmhouse filled with beautiful girls dancing in the firelight affect Benioff’s characters as much as they affect his readers. Without requiring immersion in Russian culture, Benioff still provides a believable setting filled with convincing characters. City of Thieves draws readers into the unfamiliar setting with comfortable ease, providing just enough stability to prevent disorientation. The plot does what seems fitting, but does it so adeptly that readers can still be excited by the outcomes. City of Thieves might not be ground-breaking in plot theme or character models, but the book does its job as entertaining escapist literature.