(Counterpoint Press, 2016)
If the expression “natural-born storyteller” hasn’t yet gone to the glue factory, then these two novels take the nag out for a fresh canter. Grace is a début for Natashia Deón, whose credentials include a PEN Fellowship, and while Allison Amend has three earlier books, and some prize recognition, she’s still young enough to have whipped up something new for Enchanted Islands.
What distinguishes the books is the timeless tug of narrative. Both work with history—Deón with America’s Civil War and Amend with the first half of the 20th century—and this larger plot lends shape to the smaller. Better yet, while such entertainment technology hasn’t been on the cutting edge since Tolstoy’s time, it continues to prove adaptable. Deón tends to carnage, Amend to comedy. Still, once you settle into either novel, a sign takes shape overhead: Quiet Please. People Reading.
Deón’s title, Grace, feels like one of her few false steps. The word seems inadequate to the desperate, wounded struggles unfolding. The subject is race—volcanic matter to begin with, especially on the antebellum plantations of old Alabama. Violence, quipped H. Rap Brown, is American as apple pie, and Deón (a lawyer as well as a writer, based in L.A.) remains true to the recipe. First impressions are nightmarish, with a “nigga” on the run, a woman, pursued by white men with guns. And she’s heavily pregnant! Having contractions! Hard to believe the fugitive could be guilty of murder, as the men claim, but she’ll get no due process here. The birth forces her to stop, and even as the baby emerges, she’s cut down.
Extremity like that requires a skilled hand, and right from these first few pages, Deón demonstrates a gift for terror by telegraph:
A spark of light. A loud pop.
My last thought is to not fall on my baby.
Besides confining herself to dots and dashes, in many cases the author also puts the worst off beyond some trick of perspective. We witness a suicide between cracked floorboards, and overhear a rape behind thin walls. What’s more, the initial bloody business surmounts its tragedy, in a way; its narrator, and the novel’s, turns out to be the woman who was murdered.
Mixed-blood, slain while still in her teens, her name was Naomi. Was, or is: her postmortem experience extends considerably further, and provides Grace with its structural coup. The killing at the outset takes place in the 1840s, as do a few subsequent brief chapters, but thereafter the novel shuttles between past and future. Naomi both revisits what brought her to such desperate straits and haunts the growing girl born before that lethal “pop.” One chapter returns to 1846, when the Massa seeks a breeder and Naomi’s mother’s bed starts “knockin” against the wall; the next (date and location are always given) puts us at in 1860, the war’s start, when no one’s left at the plantation but women and slaves, prompting both the taking of liberties and a backlash against them. In either era, questions are raised, and overall the suspense doubles, marvelously.
Back before the war, it turns out, Naomi did have something to do with the crime that set the bounty-hunters on her. Those few early chapters, seen through the scrim of an unsettled spirit, include a terrible night in the slave quarters, a bloodbath in part the girl’s fault. What matters more is that, in this case, Naomi escapes. For the remainder of the book, over her last couple of years on earth, her chapters unfold with a relative lack of trouble. She lucks into a nearby brothel, not as a whore but a housekeeper, under the protection of the hardboiled Jewish madam who might be Deón’s richest creation, roughhousing and full of paradox. That protection fails her in the end, to be sure, and before that there’s gunplay and lynching. Still, in these chapters Naomi mostly suffers the kind of turmoil any girl her age endures, such as the dawning of infatuation:
He got big ears.
They cupped like hands on the sides of his head [. . .] His wild reddish hair so puffy and high he must got some other blood mixed in him worser than I got. But his eyebrows is black. And thick. He got freckles too.
Deón, that is, leavens the hardship at times. The chapters concerning young Josephine, in general, come together as a kinder, gentler potboiler. The restraint is fitting, since Naomi intended to name her “Grace,” and the girl comes of age during Emancipation. Not that her episodes don’t have their own horrors, such as a rape portrayed close up, and the vengeful rise of the Klan. More problematic is how the Josey chapters fail to do much with the irony of her coloring, light enough to “pass.” Others keep pointing this out, only to have the girl insist she’s black and leave it at that. I’m bothered as well by the final confrontation, which lets the deus out of the machina. Yet the improbability at the book’s close is fitting, too, since the 1860s material stages other similar tricks, as the ghost-narrator develops special powers. In this embrace of magic, Deón’s debut seems kin to John Keene’s recent selection of stories, Counternarratives. Both books amount finally to dreams of escape, arresting and terrific overall, providing a supernatural release from the tormented history of Africans in the Americas.
Allison Amend has history on the mind as well, at the start of Enchanted Islands. The novel opens in the 1960s, when the octogenarian Frances Conway is under care alongside her oldest friend, and she thinks on “sorority” and how it’s changed in their lifetimes: “an age [. . .] where women start to wear trousers and leave off girdles, where we can have careers and be perfectly productive members of society without marrying or bearing children.” These freedoms, however, came at a cost, and she has no children of her own. So Chapter One ends, “I will tell my story,” and Two begins, “I was born in Duluth [. . .]
Conway’s narration remains straightforward in other ways as well. As a teenager, she discovers her boyfriend’s cheating by walking in on him naked and hunched over her best friend; in her sixties, when she cheats on a husband who’s loving but distant (in every sense), she shows up at her paramour’s and wordlessly strips before him. Neither scene deserves an X rating; “there are secrets a lady must keep to herself,” claims Conway, “even in her intimate memoirs.” This restraint is more a matter of rhetoric, a tonal choice. The action, in Islands, has Amend’s “lady” pulling the wraps off just about everything else. Indeed, during her story’s defining central chapters—the title chapters, set on the “enchanted” Galapagos—she’s a Navy Intelligence agent.
That last, Amend admits in a modest closing “Note,” is her own invention. An actual Frances Conway, with the same birth year as Amend’s, lived with her husband in the Galapagos in the 1930s and ’40s. The experience gave her a pair of chatty memoirs, travel exotica, but these have nary a word about either espionage or her sex life. In the novel, however, the two go hand in hand. This Conway wouldn’t have married, or gotten to know its stranger flora and fauna, if it weren’t for the Intelligence work.
About a hundred pages into Islands, Amend pulls her lone dramatic stunt, revving her story into hyperdrive during what would be, for most women, the most important years of her life. Till that point, the novel has read like a brisk Bildungsroman, if with an unusual willingness to raze the buildings as it goes; Conway, neé Fran Frankowski, scraps her immigrant Jewish family and faith while also dumping the Midwest for, eventually, San Francisco. Rummaging through this wardrobe of selves gives “Fanny” some hard knocks, to be sure; early exposure to users and cheaters, among her menfolk, are presented with a fine balance of what’s mysterious to a child and agony to an adult. Still, by and large the journey feels like a jaunt, with laughs like this exchange about sex:
“And you . . . Aren’t you worried about getting . . . You know?”
“He uses a French letter.” Rosalie examined her fingernails.
“He reads to you in French?”
Fanny arrives out West still young, falls into a teaching career—and then just a couple of pages later, with no further complications to speak of, “I reached my early fifties, an age at which women stopped being noticed.”
Yet this is also the late ’30s, a time when both Germany and Japan are looking like serious threats. Naval Intelligence, it turns out, has a man for her: Ainslie Conway, a decorated officer with WASP bloodlines and a “matinee-idol mouth.” They want a pair of lookouts on the Galapagos, and since there’s not yet a shooting war, these would be spies, not soldiers. That’s where Frances comes in, part of the subterfuge. She’s the wife, Ainslie the husband: a couple who seek to get away from it all.
The setup also underscores how, in those days, Intelligence was the only branch of the military in which a woman could make a significant contribution. So as the narrative again slows down, through the constant hardscrabble of living off the ’40s grid and the occasional shocks of an ever-widening war, Conway earns her stripes as a Sister of the American Century—and Amend soars to new heights of accomplishment. Her Stations West (2002) has an impressive multigenerational scope, and A Nearly Perfect Copy (2013) snappy pacing and urbanity, but neither achieves such humanity: now goofy and heart-sore, now forging hard bargains in a marriage highly compromised to begin with and now tied to a tree at midnight, convinced her best friend on the island will come back and kill her, at which point she spots a Darwin Finch and thinks: “Let it fear humans. We are a terrifying and awful species.”
The details of our narrator’s survival, that night, stand eventually in fascinating contrast to what Ainslie did, once, at a similar hard pass. That secret, too, yields to his island-hardened wife, by war’s end. What she discovers may say something about gender differences, or at least about a soldier’s fraternity versus Conway’s “sorority,” which becomes more welcoming over the course of her late-life initiation. So too her pseudo-memoir makes room for the return to San Francisco, where the woman’s peacetime pursuits include a lover who, as a Holocaust survivor, you’d think had long since outgrown such monkey business. Such developments allow for more sharp observation, the distinction for instance between a cold but loyal husband and detached but ardent lover, but over the novel’s final quarter its impact lessens.
Isn’t some slackening inevitable, however, now that we’ve left the islands? And wouldn’t skimping on Conway’s twilight years violate the essence of Amend’s enchantment, which makes magic of the inhospitable, the incompatible? Her comedy requires that life roll on, as much as Deón’s tragedy requires its jagged cutting off; the triumph of both is how each writer stays true to her story’s needs.
JOHN DOMINI's latest book is The Sea-God's Herb, selected criticism, and in 2016 he will bring out a new set of stories, MOVIEOLA!