Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season turned me into a total book-nag; I nagged every reader I knew about reading it when I had finished it myself. I loved everything about it, from the first page to the back cover, with the author’s black-’n'-white-striped stockings and quirky smile. It was definitely a favourite read for that reading year. And, so, I bought Wickett’s Remedy in hardcover, but it took the author’s planned appearance at the IFOA this year (promoting her 2010 novel The False Friend) to get me to finally read it.
On the first page you (a) meet Lydia Kilkenny, (b) find yourself in a historical novel, with horse-drawn drays and cobblestones, and (c) see a note in the right-hand margin. If you’re like me, you saw the note first and it made you flip through the book to see if there are others. Indeed, there are.
In fact, at first I wondered if Wickett’s Remedy was actually non-fiction because the notes reminded me of academic writing, with so many important bits at the bottoms of pages and hidden in appendices. But the notes are not scholarly at all. Though there is something distanced about them, that’s true: about a quarter of the way into the novel, I understood why. Once you realize what it’s all about, it’s not gimicky; it makes sense in the context of the story.
In many ways, Myla Goldberg’s second novel is a story about distance, about the spaces between. Not only structurally (the spaces between the marginalia and the narrative text itself), but thematically.
Although the bulk of the story is rooted in the past, in Boston, when horses shared the roadway with trolleys, when the iceman’s delivery route passed crowded triple-decker tenements, there are documents dated in more recent times that bridge the gap between past and present (their relevance, like that of the margin notes, becomes clear as the story develops).
Another element of distance is the disparity between the margin notes and the events as relayed in the text. Something relayed by one character in the text might be remembered by another character, whose version appears alongside in the margins. For instance, Lydia remembers vaguely a particular letter she received, but the character who wrote it, who took time choosing every word, remembers it nearly verbatim, and his version appears in one of the longer notes that reaches much further down the margin than Lydia’s brief narrative summary.
Sometimes the distance is not event-related but one of perception: two characters can remember something similarly, but have experienced it differently. This was true of Lydia’s wedding night. “On their wedding night, as if to prove his diligence, he whispered the Latin names of their respective anatomies as they lay together, a tutorial that ended when Lydia confessed that the words reminded her of Sunday Mass.” The note reveals, however, that his whispering had been a mark of reverence, but not in the off-putting way in which it was received by Lydia. To her husband, “the terms seemed neither religious nor didactic. To his mind, nothing rendered the body more beautiful than Latin.”
And sometimes the gap is not only between two characters’ consciousnesses, but a distance within a single character. This is true of Lydia’s consciousness: “Inside her starched, white shirtwaist, her hair piled into a careful bun, she felt as if her best self lurked just beneath her skin, a shimmery fish that might breach the surface at any moment.”
And the gaps between Lydia’s selves are even more pronounced after she experiences a devastating loss: “Lydia had forgotten what it was to be hauled from oblivion into a world she had disowned, but now her skin weighed on her body like the pelt of a lifeless animal, and she remembered.”
But while the gaps within Lydia are remarkable for her, there are more immediate, identifiable distances between Lydia and her surroundings. Lydia has crossed the bridge, literally and figuratively. Her work (at the counter in Gilchrist’s Department Store) separates her, not only geographically but socially. You often see notes that reveal how differently Lydia is viewed after she begins working and, later, living at a distance from her roots.
“Outside the D Street flat every aspect of Lydia’s person proclaimed her a stranger. Liddie Kilkenny had been a D Street girl but Lydia Wickett just as certainly had been born across the bridge. Lydia Wickett pinned her hair in far too elaborate a style for a Southie girl; Lydia Wickett did not put her elbows on the table at employee lunch; and lydia Wickett’s accent was certainly not Irish. When she attempted to resume the Southie inflections after so many years of assiduous correction, she felt as if a stranger’s tongue had been sewn into her mouth.”
Beyond that, there are significant gaps, politically and medically, that affect the characters of Wickett’s Remedy in profound, overarching ways: the distance between the home-front and the trenches, the spaces left behind when men go to fight, the gap in scientific knowledge which results in devastating losses on the homefront as the influenza epidemic rages.
Through Lydia’s tale, readers are brought to ask questions that are still relevant today, the biggest question being “Doesn’t it mean something?” The history books would have little to say about stories like Lydia’s; the stories of ordinary families often fall into those spaces between and are left untold because they don’t mean much.
Lydia is a strong-hearted, strong-willed young woman and her experience makes for a good story. What makes it a truly powerful story is the sense that Lydia is just one voice. So many others, also with stories to tell, reside in the margins, of novels and history books; they exist in what is unseen and unsaid. It’s reassuring to catch a glimpse of them in Wickett’s Remedy, reassuring to know that writers like Myla Goldberg are concerned with matters of meaning.
Have you read Myla Goldberg? Would you want to?
Are you attending the IFOA Round Table with her this evening? (Just one of several events this evening: please see the IFOA site.)
Stephen Marche’s Raymond and Hannah
Steven Hayward’s Buddha Stevens and Other Stories (because they, too, know how to make footnotes part of the story)
and I’m wondering if Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn would be a good match, but I haven’t read it yet.