Posted by: jeannineatkins | May 1, 2013

Novels That Move Between the Present and the Past

Three recently published novels keep some chapters in the present, then switch the point of view to explore characters who lived in the past. MARY COIN by Marissa Silver examines the ways art, language, love, and fear shape memory. Art and legacy are also themes in THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin,  which considers a broader sense of our country’s past and the ways we balance pride and guilt. THE OBITUARY WRITER by Ann Hood is about the way losses and yearning shape two lives, with the two settings about forty years apart dropping into the background. 

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The three main characters in MARY COIN are a historian whose heart beats hard at the sight of stacks of old letters or even financial records, a photographer whose work begins as a way to earn a living, then turns into art, and a migrant worker who tends to her husband and children with exquisite care. Reading along, I only gradually had a sense of how the three strands might intersect, but I never doubted that they would. This book has sentences that made me stop and marvel. Here and there, entire life histories seemed contained within a page.

The photographer finding her subject takes up themes of who we are, where we belong, and what can or can’t be found in a portrait. While we may initially ache at the evidence of hardships we see in the photograph of the woman here called Mary Coin, inspired by a photograph by Dorothea Lange, we get to see her dancing with her husband, for instance, in a small room surrounded by hungry children, who are struck wide-eyed and silent by their parents’ love. Themes of history are developed through the professor whose story begins and ends the novel, and also in scenes like one in which we watch Mary’s grown daughter help clean her trailer toward the end of the book, taking out an old hat that makes Mary remember the complex desires of her own mother, and how these got hidden. These are erased again, at least for the moment, as Mary waves her hand and says only, “Give it away.”

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The novel’s three strands wind into a loose knot suggesting that so much of what becomes history is happenstance, and like life, is beautifully elusive. In a different way, THE HOUSE GIRL by Tara Conklin, with one part told in 1852, and the other in the present, considers what we take from the past. What goes missing? What can inspire? What must be forgiven? What memories, conversations, letters, pictures do we keep and what will slip away?

This novel begins with the line: “Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run.” Right then and there I was on her side, while when in the second chapter we’re taken from 1852 to the present, I felt at first resistant, for Lina didn’t capture my attention in the same immediate way. How could she? The voice telling Josephine’s story is urgent, and we get smells of moss, tobacco, collards or oil paint in steamy heat, and a tone that’s both gritty and languorous. Lina’s world is often climate-controlled, her time in the law firm clocked to the minute, which increasingly bothers her. As she faces her own losses and finds her own courage, the stories came together. More voices are added by letters written during Josephine’s time that Lina reads for a reparations suit in which she considers paintings that might have been painted by Josephine and not credited. Toward the end of the novel, these letters connect the two lives and time periods more deeply. Like the book’s first sentence, the last one is astonishing, but I won’t disclose it. The book both felt complete and made me wish to pick up another book devoted to these lives.

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Reading Ann Hood’s novels or nonfiction is like eating your favorite bread with your favorite jam. Maybe there’s rain tapping the windowpanes, and your tea is still hot. THE OBITUARY WRITER is a departure from her usual contemporary settings, but both the goodness of her style and themes of loss remain, the assurance that we’ll be taken through common details or somewhat ordinary people into heart-rending places. Ann Hood has a gift like Jane Austen, and the best gossips, of being able to point out oddities and foibles in a loving way. In the opening of the novel, a child disappears from a suburban street, which doesn’t strike us as entirely harrowing, for the focus is on the reactions of neighbors who arrive at the house armed with casseroles and cakes, as if shields against fate, and comment that it seems the mother of the lost child could have washed her hair at least when she knew a TV cameraman was coming. The loss is an impetus for a central character in an unhappy marriage to instigate an affair. This isn’t the first or last time I read with thoughts that rolled like waves, one after another, “Really?” and “Of course.” We’re invited to smile at human folly both in this early 1960’s setting and in alternating chapters set in 1919 about the gifted obituary writer and her lost dream, which are woven together with a similar style built from a keen eye for detail.

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Responses

  1. Did you read them in sequence on purpose?

    I love books like this when they are done well. Possession by A.S. Byatt comes to mind – the things known, and the things unknown. The secrets that are found by later generations, who can’t know the whole story, and who knew what back then . . .

  2. Hi, Kelly, after finishing my own historical novel, I wanted to read others. I read reviews of the first two, and am always ready to read anything by Ann Hood. I thought about the reasons for keeping one section in the present and another in the past, though now that I’m writing, I realize THE OBITUARY NOVEL doesn’t really fall into that pattern. Whoops. But there’s something about the voice that feels contemporary, so I’ll tell that to my editor, who is me. And, yes, like you, I love those glimpses and broken tales, what’s taken out and forever put away and what’s cherished in a changed form.

  3. I recently read EMPIRE FALLS by Richard Russo and loved it. It also moves between past and present, and all the while I read it I thought, “How did he do this?!” One of those books that both inspired me to be a better writer AND to contemplate a different career.

    That’s an incredible opening line for HOUSE GIRL.

    • I’ve read other Richard Russo but not EMPIRE FALLS, and I should. I’ve definitely been entranced by the way he moves through time and sometimes place, though in BRIDGE OF SIGHS I so much more wanted to be in Venice than in upstate New York.

      I am voting that you go the inspired to be a better writer route. We get to gasp at brilliant writing, then move forward as best we can with our own. At least that’s my credo.

      Yes, I loved that first line, and she managed to keep up its sense of both imminent danger and power.

  4. All THREE are going on my list–Miss Jeannine, will you support my book-buying habit? I’m fascinated with books that move between the past and present and my last novel (still unpublished) brought many comments from editors who didn’t feel kids could deal with the time shift. I disagreed and made the shift as clear as possible in revisions. But still . . . Can’t wait to read Ann Hood’s latest. Thanks so much for alerting me to these gems.

    • Maybe my favorite part of teaching is saying, Read this, and handing over books, or at least their titles. Wish you lived closer and we could swap. Odd that editors didn’t think kids could deal with a time shift. I think most of us do that all the time, but maybe I’m speaking personally here. Still.

      I’ve stared at Ann Hood’s prose style trying to figure out why it’s as good as eating pie, but I cannot. So I just enjoy.

  5. All these books sound really great! Can’t wait to read them!

  6. I loved Moon over Manifest and the way it wove two time periods together. And it won the Newberry Award in 2011.

    • Thanks! There is so much to read. I’m really impressed by writer’s abilities to braid two periods together well.


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