Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
shadow

The Salt House

By Lisa Duffy
Simon & Schuster, 2017

This book grabbed me from the first page. The story of a family unhinged by grief over the death of their toddler, it is told from the points of view of each of the four surviving family members. The author does a remarkable job of getting inside the head of each of the parents, Jack and Hope Kelly, and of their daughters, sixteen-year-old Jess and eight-year-old Kat.

As a writer, I am in awe of Lisa Duffy’s daring to do this in her debut novel. It is hard to create mannerisms and dialogue that reflect each viewpoint character’s personality. There are a number of books that alternate the voices of husband and wife – Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and The Silent Wife, by A.S.A Harrison, come to mind. Each of those stories features childless couples and involve murder. Duffy’s genre is women’s fiction, a supposedly gentler medium. But the plot builds suspense in The Salt House as Duffy writes each member of the family’s reaction to the death of baby Maddie. A sub-plot holds the story together, fueled by the behavior of the taciturn lobsterman Jack Kelly when an old antagonist reappears in town.

With four viewpoint characters, who is the protagonist here? Duffy’s point seems to be that in a house of grief, all the residents are entitled to their own struggle. By writing them all in the first person she enhances our ability to empathize with them. She does an excellent job in her portrait of the two partners in a marriage. She’s able to write the voice of a teenager so the reader feels again the wash of emotion of first love, and then takes us into the language and understanding of an elementary school child. Kat’s misunderstandings and malapropisms provide light relief from what could be an overwhelmingly sad story. It’s fitting that her action provides a turning point in the family’s move from despair to healing.

Lisa Duffy’s ear for dialogue is spot on. Her settings, too, ring true. Having spent some delightful vacations in coastal Maine, I recognized her descriptions of lobster boats and the territorial fishing culture, the hard, sometimes dangerous work of fishermen mitigated by the gorgeous natural beauty of the sea and shore. It’s summer-time Atlantic coast setting make this a great book for late summer reading. Recommended.

Circe

By Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury Publishing, U.K. 2018

The enchantress Circe, who lived alone on a magic island, lured Odysseus, on the last stretch of his long journey from the battle at Troy to his home in Ithaca, to her bed. His men, she turned to pigs.

In this gorgeous imagining of Homer’s story, the classicist Madeline Miller makes Circe intelligent and independent, more mortal than goddess, a woman reacting to men’s betrayal, a young girl considered ugly and stupid by her mother and siblings, an outcast, a single mother, and a woman who escaped danger over and over again by her own ingenuity.

That made the male species wild. In Miller’s telling, Circe’s father Helios exiles her because she used her magic powers to turn a romantic rival, Scylla, into the six-headed monster who haunted the Strait of Messina. The strait was narrow, and ships were forced between two terrors, the monster and the whirlpool known as Charybdis. Miller’s Scylla is the undercurrent of the novel. Perhaps a projection of the evil that jealousy causes, she’s Circe’s nemesis. But then, so are most of the other characters who populate the story, from her hateful siblings to the gentle Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife. Circe, Miller seems to say, will always be alone, because she acts with an agency denied to females in the ancient world.

Circe works hard at her profession. After the first night in exile, she wakes and goes into the forest surrounding her house. “I stepped into those woods and my life began.” Circe tells us that witchcraft is like any other trade. It must be learned and practiced. ”Sorcery…must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods cannot…Day after patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again.”

Fortunately for Circe, she has years, centuries even, to perfect her craft, undistracted by domestic chores. I loved this passage about her island home: “Though the rooms were deserted, there was no speck of dust, and I would learn that none would cross the marble threshold. However I tracked upon it, the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood regrew overnight. In the pantry there were jars of oil and wine, of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”

And so she gets on with it. Miller brings many other Greek myths into her episodic story, and Odysseus only appears in the latter third of the book. In the meantime, Circe has learned not to trust sailors who happen upon the island and discover that she lives there alone. Miller’s voice is strong and powerful when she describes Circe’s reaction to rape, and later, her wary reaction to Odysseus, who charms her by his diffidence and friendship. It is not a spoiler to tell of Circe’s pregnancy by Odysseus, who sails off unknowing. Here Miller shows us, movingly, Circe’s struggles to bring up a baby alone, while trying to work. What mother cannot sympathize when Circe describes her desperate attempts to get her infant to sleep? “However I wrapped him, however I rocked and sang, he screamed…. The only thing that helped was if I walked – walked the halls, walked the hills, walked the shore.”

The last part of the book is a delight. In a twist on how Homer must surely have imagined Telemachus, Odysseus’s son by Penelope, Miller portrays him with the soul of an accountant. He is no warrior.

Quite simply, I loved this book. Read it.