Harper Perennial, 1991
Have you ever encountered a book so beautifully written that you can’t bear to read more than half a dozen pages at a time? Of course you want to know what’s going to happen, but then you encounter paragraphs that just stop you in your tracks with their perfection. Sometimes the emotions portrayed overwhelm you with their intricacy and their truth. Other times it’s the aptness of some metaphor or the vibrancy of some description. It’s tough to make progress in a book like that. One doesn’t want to squander the experience, the sense of wonder that comes from such exquisitely fashioned prose.
Barbara Kingsolver’s books seem to have this effect on me. Her brief biography on the back of Animal Dreams says she’s “a writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry”. The poetry explains it all. In a poem, as in her books, every word counts. With a sort of splendid humility, in concise, direct sentences that somehow convey profound meaning, Ms. Kingsolver gradually exposes her vivid, flawed characters as they stumble through their lives.
About a year ago I read Ms. Kingsolver’s more recent novel, Flight Behavior. I found it so stunning I couldn’t bring myself to review it. Honestly, I felt I couldn’t do it justice. When I finished this earlier book of hers a few days ago, I vowed I’d write a review before I lost my nerve.
Cosima "Codi" Noline returns to her tiny, traditional hometown of Grace, Arizona after a self-exile of more than a decade, because she doesn’t know where else to go. Her beloved younger sister Hallie, with whom she shares the sort of closeness usually reserved for twins, has set off to civil-war-torn Nicaragua to offer her expertise as an agriculturist to the peasants trying to build a new society. Her father, the emotionally distant physician who has ministered to Grace’s ailments for forty years, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and Codi feels some sense of responsibility toward him, despite her conviction that he neither loves nor approves of her. She does not belong in Grace, though, or so she believes. The problem with Codi is that she doesn’t belong anywhere.
As she takes on a one year contract as a high school biology teacher and struggles to reconnect with people from her childhood, she tells herself she’s just passing through—that she can’t and won’t make a commitment to these strangers. Even when she falls in love with a high school flame, and lends her scientific expertise to a campaign to save Grace from ecological disaster, she holds on to the notion that her stay in Grace is temporary. She has lost too much in the course of her life—her mother, her unborn child, her father’s love, her sister’s company—to trust in any sort of enduring happiness. At the end of her contract, she heads for Colorado, running away from Grace one more time. You can’t run from your fears, though—or from your dreams.
The synopsis above doesn’t even begin to capture the emotional complexities in Animal Dreams. Codi is so deeply scarred she’s ready to throw away the love she’s always craved, to leave the home for which she hungers. She’s a bit of an extreme character, but Ms. Kingsolver makes her believable, partly by providing brief glimpses into the deteriorating mind of Codi’s father, Homero Noline. The doctor’s memory wanders through time, reliving events from his daughters’ childhood, confusing Codi the gangly, willful child with the young woman who has returned to care for him. These three or four page sections, scattered throughout the book, provide a sort of tragic insight into Codi’s history and show the reader how much Hector loves his daughters, and how blind the heart can be.
One of the joys of this book is the rich, affectionate portrait it paints of the American southwest. Codi’s lover Loyd is Native American. There are marvelous scenes among the ancient ruins of Canyon de Chelly and in a contemporary Pueblo community. The novel brings Grace to vivid life: the red-shingled houses clinging to the steep walls of a river gorge, surrounded by pecan and plum orchards and anchored by the formidable old women who are its heart. Its inhabitants people leap off the page, quirky, old-fashioned, distinctive, and nobody’s fools.
Here’s a paragraph from page 9—an example of the simple yet evocative prose that fills this marvelous book.
I was the only passenger getting off. The short, imperious bus driver opened the baggage door and made a show of dragging out luggage to get to mine, as if I were being difficult. A more accommodating woman, he implied, would be content with whatever bags happened to be right in front. Finally he slapped my two huge suitcases flat out in the dust. He slammed the doors and reclaimed his throne, causing the bus to bark like a dog, leaving a cloud of exhaust in the air, getting the last word, I suppose.
And here is the amazing first love scene:
He leaned over and I took his head in my hands and gave him the kiss I’d been thinking about for the last two hours. It lasted a good long while. He twisted his fingers gently through the hair at the back of my skull and held on tight, and my breath stopped while he laid down a track of small kisses from my earlobe to my collar bone. We lay back on the grass and I rolled against him, looking down into his eyes. They were dark brown, a color with depth to it, like stained glass. It was a little surprising to look at brown eyes after all the pale blues of Grace.Just being held felt unbelievably good, the long drink I’d been dying for. For a second I hugged back as tightly as I could. Something inside his buttoned shirt pocket made a crackling cellophane sound. I raised up a little and poked it with my finger. “If you’ve got a condom in your pocket, Loyd Peregrina, this is my lucky day.”He did. It was.
To be able to write like this, I’d be tempted to sell my soul.
Get yourself a copy of Animal Dreams. It might inspire you as much as it did me.