Tethered is the first book in recent memory that I
absolutely could not read fast enough to see how it comes
out. The book is deceptive. Is it a mystery? Is it a
literary novel? At first it seems to be a rather
interesting, if uncomplicated, story about a young woman,
Clara Marsh, who works in a funeral home as an undertaker;
assistant to the funeral director, Linus Bartholomew. She's
had a rather difficult life orphaned at an early age then
raised by an overly strict Bible-thumping grandmother thus
she is pretty much a loner. So when she encounters a little
girl called Trecie in one of the mourning rooms I was
expecting a story about how Clara begins to relate to the
youngster and eventually overcomes her inability to connect
with others. Boy was I wrong.
The first thing that becomes abundantly clear is just how damaged Clara is. She is so much more than simply a person who keeps to herself. This is a woman who has perfected the art of isolation to the extent that she is unable to even bring herself to hug or return the affection of Linus and his wife Alma who look upon her as their own daughter. Indeed, far from identifying with Trecie, Clara has bonded with a dead girl -- an unidentified child who was found brutally murdered several years ago and whose grave she visits regularly. She is unsympathetically untouched by the mystery surrounding that child's death although it is the primary focus of police detective Mike Sullivan and the rest of the community. In so many ways she seems perfectly suited to the downstairs/backroom nature of her profession. When called upon to pick up a body Clara wants nothing to do with the family, desiring only to dispatch the rather grim and certainly gruesome clinical responsibilities of her job with as little live human contact as possible.
On the other hand, in an apparent anomaly, in her spare time Clara toils in the magnificent greenhouse that is attached to her home. A place of indescribable beauty, it is a lush refuge, a vibrant sanctuary where she cultivates row upon row of thriving flowers. She knows each flower by name and by its meaning Shasta daisies/innocence, chrysanthemums/cheerfulness, etc. and thoughtfully selects flowers appropriately suited to the deceased, then discreetly tucks a bouquet in each casket. What's more, as Trecie makes herself more of a presence in Clara's life both Clara and Trecie suffer from the same mental illness: trichotillomania (an irresistible urge to pull out their hair) -- she becomes torn between remaining aloof from others and trying to intervene in this troubled child's life. Does she remain tethered to and by her solitude or does she allow herself to walk among and interact with others? Truly, in Clara, MacKinnon has woven a character so intricate and complex, yet the bits and pieces we glean about her past offer a plausible foundation for her "quirks."
However, I kept wondering throughout if Clara's assessment of the world around her was to be trusted. Is she sufficiently disconnected from the real world that it would render her narration faulty? Or is she, like Humbert Humbert in Nabokov's Lolita, an unreliable narrator putting so much of her own self-serving slant on events that the reader never really sees the facts? This, as much as anything, held my interest because MacKinnon does a stand up job of casting just enough doubt about Clara's mental soundness via her interaction with the other characters that it kept me guessing as to what was really going on. I still can't say whether Tethered should be categorized as a mystery or a literary novel but what I do know is that with her stupendous prose and intricate characterizations MacKinnon has penned a winner.
First Impressions: Nineteen BookBrowse members reviewed this book, rating it 4.5 on a 5 point scale - one of the top rated books reviewed to date. Read the reviews.
This review was originally published in August 2008, and has been updated for the August 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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