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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
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Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Alternate History
Hailed as "a masterpiece" (NPR), Tinkers, Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prizewinning debut, is a modern classic. The Dallas Morning News observed that "like Faulkner, Harding never shies away from describing what seems impossible to put into words." Here, in Enon, Harding follows a year in the life of Charlie Crosby as he tries to come to terms with a shattering personal tragedy. Grandson of George Crosby (the protagonist of Tinkers), Charlie inhabits the same dynamic landscape of New England, its seasons mirroring his turbulent emotional odyssey. Along the way, Charlie's encounters are brought to life by his wit, his insights into history, and his yearning to understand the big questions.
A stunning mosaic of human experience, Enon affirms Paul Harding as one of the most gifted and profound writers of his generation.
Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward.
I was walking in the woods when Kate died. I'd asked her the day before if she wanted to pack a lunch and go to the Enon River to hike around and feed the birds and maybe rent a canoe. The birds were tame and ate seeds from people's hands. From the first time I'd taken her she'd been enchanted with the chickadees and titmice and nuthatches that pecked seeds from her palm, and when she was younger she'd treated feeding the birds as if they depended on it.
Kate said going to the sanctuary sounded great, but she and her friend Carrie Lewis had made plans to go to the beach, and could she go if she was super careful.
"Especially around the lake, and the shore road," I said.
"Especially there, Dad," she said.
I remembered riding my rattly old bike to the beach with my friends when I was a kid. We wore cutoff shorts and draped threadbare bath towels around our necks. We never wore shirts or shoes. We would have laughed at the idea of bike helmets. I don't remember locking our bikes when we got to the beach, although we must have. I told Kate, all right, she could go, and she told me she loved me and kissed me on the ear. Kate died on a Saturday afternoon. The date was September 1, three days before she would have begun ninth grade. I spent the day wandering the sanctuary without any plans. Enon had been in a heat wave for a week and I had been up late the night before watching West Coast baseball, so I took it slow and mostly kept to the shade. I thought about Kate going to the beach so much over the summer, working on her tan, suddenly conscious of her looks as she'd never been before. The milkweed in the sanctuary had begun to yellow, and the goldenrod to silver. The edges of the green grass were about to dry to straw. Silver and purple rain clouds rolled low across the sky and piled into towering massifs. The slightest wind pushed ahead of the weather, eddying over the meadow, lifting dragonflies from the high grass. Bumblebees worked on the fading wildflowers. I hoped for rain to break the heat.
Chickadees wove around one another, back and forth between the bushes along the path. I hadn't brought any seeds to feed them. I remembered telling Kate about the first time I'd fed the birds from my hand, when I'd been in seventh grade, with my grandfather. We didn't have seeds because he'd forgotten about the birds. When he remembered, he and I stood still on the path, with our hands out, and the birds came to us anyway. The episode had happened so long ago, and I'd told it to Kate so many times, since she'd been a little kid, that I thought it might be fun to try it again, just so I could tell her and bring up the story about my grandfather. (Kate said once, "I never met Gramps, but you talk about him so much I feel like he's somebody I know.") It was getting late and I still had to run to the market to buy food for dinner. Carrie's coming home with Kate, I thought, if they're both not too tired from being in the sun and the bike ride. I decided to buy salmon and asparagus and a lemon and potato salad, and the corn Kate had asked me to get. I figured that if she was hot and tired, she'd want something light. Susan'll like that, too, I thought. I'll get a carton of lemonade, pink if they have it. Kate always said it tastes sweeter, less tart than the yellow kind, although I could never taste the difference.
I had almost reached the end of the boardwalk, at the boundary of the marsh, where the path took up again through the trees and led back to the meadow, where by then swallows would be lacing through the sky, feeding. Although I felt like I didn't have the time, because I didn't want Kate to have to wait too long to eat, I stopped and stood still and held out my empty hand, like I had twenty-one years earlier, eight years before Kate was born, fifteen years before I brought her there. It suddenly seemed lovely, the thought of standing there, coaxing even a single bird, if only for a fl uttering instant, just so I could go home and cook dinner and when Kate came out to the picnic table, fresh out of the shower, her hair still wet, maybe even staggering a little to be silly, groaning and saying something like "Argh, I'm so tired," I could say, "Hey, I tried to feed the birds without any seeds, like that first time with Gramps, and it worked!" In the two or three minutes I allowed myself, one bird approached my hand and pulled up short and rolled off back into the bushes when it saw I had no food. I decided that that was close enough and hurried toward the car, glad at the prospect of making Kate a good meal that would comfort her after a long day.
Excerpted from Enon by Paul Harding. Copyright © 2013 by Paul Harding. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In his private, contemplative novel, Enon, author Paul Harding describes a year in the life of Charlie Crosby - grandson of George Washington Crosby, the protagonist of Harding's 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers. Set in Enon, the same fictional town as Tinkers, Charlie is devastated after his thirteen-year-old daughter Kate is hit by a car and killed, and he's not altogether surprised when his wife leaves him shortly thereafter. (Don't worry, there are no plot spoilers here this information is given in the first paragraph of the novel.) He narrates the story reflecting back on that year, flowing in and out of the present moment, reminiscing about when Kate was alive, recalling memories of his grandparents and his childhood, imagining what life might be like if the rules of time and space could be bent:
It is the case in particle physics that when two photons are collided together in a particle accelerator, new particles are created in the collision. As I marched home along the old railroad tracks in the western part of Enon Swamp one freezing dawn, after another night of labored and aimless roving, I thought about Kate on her bicycle and the car hitting her. Instead of her and the bike being pulled up underneath the car and mangled, I imagined an explosion and a burst of light out of which three cars and three bikes clattered, and three Kates tumbled too...
While the construct of the story and the progression of the plot feel artificial in many places, once Harding finds his way into his long, introspective, almost mythical passages, his writing particularly about death is gorgeous. He has a unique talent for blurring the lines between the present and the past without slipping into the world of the bizarre, and Charlie's sad, imaginative, wandering mind is something to savor:
Digging up the cold, grainy coffee with the yellow plastic scoop made me think of Kate's ashes and for a moment the coffee became her ashes and I was performing the suburban variation of a ghastly pagan ritual, abominable to all good folk, during which boiling water was percolated through the ashes of the dead, her essence imparted into the water and absorbed by the person who drank the cannibal tea.
As Charlie sinks deeper into his depression, he relies more heavily on pain meds, whiskey, and cigarettes to get through the day. He lives in squalor, hasn't showered "since before the New Year," and lives in a haze of heartache. But despite all that, I never really believed that he was out of control. Throughout his narrative, he seems to maintain a self-awareness and clarity that belies his hopelessness. It's not that he can't pull himself out of this funk, it's that he doesn't want to. At one point he asks himself, "If I claimed I was too weak to bear my daughter's death, didn't that mean I really had the strength?" As the reader, I started to wonder the same thing.
Regardless, Harding's ability to conjure haunting images, blear the boundaries between past and present, and use his surroundings to set the mood of the story is remarkable:
It was easy for me to imagine Kate living in an Enon that existed in the past, though, where all the citizens from all the village's history lived among one another. I could see her newly arrived, walking alone down Main Street, between the cemetery and town hall a disembarkation after a trip across another Atlantic. Kate has dried in the breeze but her skin is salted and her hair, clothes, and beach towel brined. She is pale and still wobbly on her feet from the weeks of the rise and fall of the trip across the ocean
I recommend Enon to readers who enjoy quiet, interior narratives; long (but not belabored) descriptive passages; a strong sense of place; and to those who won't mind spots of weak plot and dialogue in order to get to the good stuff. This is a quick and enjoyable read, perfect for a cold autumn day.
Reviewed by Elena Spagnolie
Rated of 5
Sad, sad story
What a sad, sad book. Having lost a much older child in a tragic accident, I could identify with Charlie’s loss, pain, and lack of will to continue living. However, unlike Charlie, I had the love and support of my husband, other children, family, and friends. This is a heart-wrenching story about poor Charlie, who makes his daughter, Kate, his life. When she is killed, he has no boundaries; no job; no apparent friends; his wife leaves him; he has nothing left to define his life; turns to drugs and alcohol; and, “lives” in the past and dreams. Many times, I was hoping in the next chapter that Charlie would finally reach the depths of his despair and pull himself back together. A sad, sad tale.
In Enon (as in his 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers), Paul Harding constructs and describes the fictional New England town of Enon, complete with a chronicling of its multi-generational history, descriptions of its homes, woods and native plants, and stories of those buried in its cemetery.
Generally speaking, the setting of a story helps locate the culture, mindset, and mood of a book; it guides readers' emotions, allows them to form expectations for characters' behaviors, identifies whether they fit in, and places them in time and space. When writers create fictional settings whether made-up towns in familiar places, or fantastical worlds we never dreamed possible they have the ability to manipulate everything around them and dive deep into their creative wells, which makes for some great storytelling.
Perhaps one of the most famous literary settings is J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth (featured in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion), home to hobbits of the Shire, elves of Lothlórien, Gondor's men, and orcs of Mordor. Praised for its intricate and incredibly detailed histories, Tolkien creates more than just a setting for his books. He develops an entire universe filled with elaborate genealogies, and even new languages and alphabets (which groups such as the Linguistic Fellowship of the Tolkien Society have studied and published on at length).
And who can forget L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz, where Munchkin Country, and Emerald City provide Dorothy (and her little dog too) with a colorful and wondrous backdrop for their adventures. C.S. Lewis takes readers to Narnia, J.K. Rowling makes magic in Hogsmeade, and J.M. Barrie gives us Neverland, where we can fly and never ever have to grow up.
On the less fantastical side of the spectrum, F. Scott Fitzgerald showers readers in the opulence of The Great Gatsby's West Egg on Long Island, Gabriel García Márquez's Macondo (said to be based on Aracataca in Colombia) is home to the Buendía family in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County (based on Lafayette County, Mississippi) is the setting for all but three of his novels. According to H-net (Humanities and Social Sciences Online), "Faulkner called the setting for his novels and stories both 'actual' and 'apocryphal.' Yoknapatawpha County is the place where he resolved his simultaneous impulses to invent and to document." Harding uses this same approach in his descriptions of Enon; every building has a story of its own, every gravestone a link to the past. In this way, he puts himself in the role of author/historian, which helps him create such rich and multi-layered characters.
Since 2004, in recognition of writers who evoke such a sense of place, the Royal Society of Literature has given out an annual award of £10,000 to the winner of the Ondaatje Prize (named after its benefactor, Sir Christopher Ondaatje). Judges of the 2013 prize, Julia Blackburn, Margaret Drabble, and Ian Jack commented that, "A place, whether it is a small room, a forest floor, or an entire continent, is defined by the limitations and freedoms it offers and by the layers of emotion and history it contains. For this prize we are trying to see where and how this elusive spirit has been best captured in a book of poetry, fiction, biography, or personal memoir."
While Harding isn't eligible for the Ondaatje Prize (it is restricted to citizens and residents of the UK Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland), he certainly knows how to construct an environment that does more than provide a backdrop. Enon is a complete character, living, breathing, changing alongside generations of the Crosby family, and will surely take its place among memorable literary settings.
First image: A map of JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth
Second image: A map of CS Lewis' Narnia
Third image: Aracataca, Colombia
Fourth image: Lafayette County, Mississippi from University of California Press
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