Friday, July 18, 2008

Review: Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos

Atlantic Monthly Press; January 1, 2009

In the title track of his 9/11-inspired album, The Rising, Bruce Springsteen summons the image of "a catfish dancing on the end of my line" to evoke a fireman's state of mind as he finds himself suspended between life and death. The "rising" of the song's title refers not so much to the rising flames in the collapsing Twin Towers as to the notion of resurrection, as Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen describes in his definitive Paste magazine review. But as other tracks on the album make clear, Springsteen is concerned less with the resurrection of the dead than of the living—the spiritual rebirth of those whose lives have been stunted by the deaths of their loved ones.

All of these notions—the mystifying space between life and death, the strange and lasting toll death takes on the living, and what it means for the living to sing to the dead—stand at the heart of Stephanie Kallos' brilliant forthcoming novel, Sing Them Home. Originally titled Hope's Wheelchair, Sing Them Home draws on a real event from the author's southeast Nebraska childhood in which a wheelchair-bound woman named Hope, afllicted by multiple sclerosis, was badly hurt when a tornado destroyed her farmhouse.

But unlike the Hope of Kallos' hometown, the Hope of Sing Them Home "went up" and never came down. The novel focuses on the lives of Hope's three children (now in their thirties) and how her death's failure to supply "the gift of bones" shaped the adults they became—and the adults they didn't become. "The gift of bones is a profound comfort to the living—little else satisfies—and these children have done without it," Kallos writes.

Given its premise, it's refreshing to discover that Sing Me Home isn't in the least maudlin. A quarter-century later, Hope's incorporeal death has left her offspring not so much grief-stricken as unsettled and odd.

But death is central to the novel. Sing Them Home is set in a Nebraska town called Emlyn Springs where Welsh tradition runs deep, and nowhere is that tradition more manifest than in the town's all-consuming observance of the funereal rite of Gymanfa Ganu. The Gymanfa seems like a dramatically intensified Celtic cousin to the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, the main difference being that Gymanfa Ganu requires that the home of the deceased (or some other appointed location) be occupied for seven days by the entire town, as opposed to a ten-man minyan, and that instead of praying twice a day, mourners observing Gymanfa Ganu are expected to sing Welsh hymns 'round the clock—to sing the dead home, as it were.

Two Gymanfa Ganus play noteworthy roles in Sing Them Home: that of Hope's widower, Llwellyn, which creates the circumstances of reunion and homecoming that kick off the book; and that of Llwellyn's grandmother. The grandmother's Gymanfa is described in a 1960 entry in Hope's diary. Though this early entry, relating Hope's first visit to Emlyn Springs as Llwellyn's fiancee, captures a young woman full of, well, hope, and a burning desire to lose her virginity, later entries track the early signs of MS and the toll it takes on her as the disease advances (both before and after she finds out what's happening to her). Hope's diary creates a recurrent and increasingly heartbreaking secondary narrative in the novel—a beyond-the-grave voice unknowingly relating the story of how her life slipped away from her.

As in Kallos' stunning debut novel, Broken for You (2004), the power and determination of the dead to communicate with the living is an important issue in Sing Them Home. It's also a source of frustration for the dead in this novel, who know when the living need them, but are also aware that the living aren't especially good at hearing what the dead need to tell them, or understanding the responsibilities that the dead have in their world.

Of Hope's three children, the youngest, Bonnie, seems most attuned to the presence of the dead in the world of the living; known to one and all in Emlyn Springs as "The Flying Girl" because she and her bicycle went up in the twister with Hope and inexplicably landed safely on top of an upended tree, Bonnie devotes her life to the collection of seemingly random junk and scraps of paper—anything that may even vaguely point her toward her mother's continued presence in the world or connect her pre-Flying Girl life to the one that followed.

Bonnie's older brother, Gaelan, is among the last of his kind in the world of local network affiliate news: the non-meteorologist weatherman, a good-looking, affable on-screen presence with no scientific qualifications for predicting the unpredictable (a job that seems especially absurd in Nebraska). A maniacal bodybuilder with a healthy Springsteen fixation, Gaelan devotes his late afternoons to a particularly detached brand of serial polygamy.

Hope's eldest, Larken, gets a number of the greatest set-piece scenes in the book. The first thing we learn about Larken, an art history professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is that she can dress down a belligerent student in her office without ever letting on that she has a Reese's peanut butter cup lodged in each cheek. The glimpses we get of her adolescent journey from Little Miss Emlyn Springs to overweight town tramp in a two-year span are tautly presented without a hint of unseemly sentimentality.

The scenes involving Larken and her upstairs neighbor's child are also a thing of beauty. Despite its built-in limitations, this relationship also points toward a more engaged and satisfying possible new life for Larken, and during the course of the book we see Larken and her brother and sister move awkwardly, and not always promisingly, toward resurrections of their own. Much like the dead who see all and wish they could do more about it, as readers we begin to see where their lives ought to go, but it's not always clear if or how they're going to get there.

Much like Broken for You, Sing Them Home is a richly textured, deeply satisfying, and enduring read—a whirlwind of aching sadness, secret histories, sex that's by turns empty and angry and sloppy and transformative, moments of great sweetness and joy that are never saccharine, and ultimately, resolution and redemption that are well-earned and in no way false or forced. Before Sing Them Home, Kallos was already, arguably, the best first-novelist of the Aughts; now it's abundantly clear that she's becoming quite a bit more than that.

Click here to pre-order Sing Them Home from Powell's Books.

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