Look closely.

Dennison Smith Eye of the Day

HarperCollins, 2014

Things are not what they seem.

Or, are more than they seem.

Or, too much to bear if they are seen.

Or, impossible to see.

The Eye of the Day is an assured and sophisticated novel: disorienting, nourishing and powerful storytelling. (It is certainly on my list of favourite reads for this year.)

But no sedate and measured tale: Dennison Smith’s story opens with an explosion.

“One low-flying spike pierced Amos’s jaw and carried on through the back of his head; a searing darkness entered his skull, and the light in his left eye was snuffed. An awesome force threw him off the ladder to the ground, but equally strong and mysterious, the earth stood him up again.”

The blast not only strikes the twenty-five-year-old worker but eleven-year-old Aubrey.

“He landed hard on the concrete platform. A bulb shattered above him and cut him just over his eye. As he lifted himself, the second blast brought him down again.”

In only three pages, the connections begin to reverberate.

Not only between characters – for Amos and Aubrey have a dramatic and enduring bond – but between themes and ideas.

Lines are drawn, turned into arrows at one end and then the other.

What is small takes on an expected prominence and the ordinary takes a sharp turn into the extraordinary.

In one moment, readers visualize an eyeball thrust out the back of a skull and, in the next, the sun bursting forth atop the horizon. The everyday takes on a mythic resonance.

“Once, when he was a baby, a lightning bolt had forced a nail out of his bedroom wall, and the nail had shot across his cradle and shattered the glass over a photograph of his mother. Luckily it was only a photograph. There was Mother now, resting on the porch amidst butterfly nets and raincoats.”

Lightning bolts and explosions, shattered glass and skulls, the deadly trajectory of nails and spikes: layers and interconnections abound. And suspicions.

“’I knew the real Mata Hari,’ Father interrupted. ‘I met her at a party in Paris during the war. She claimed to be a Javanese princess, but she was really just a Dutch girl who gave herself a fanciful name.’” Mata Hari means “eye of the day”, in the language of princesses. And after she tired of being a princess, she married, was accused of being a spy, and she was executed for that crime in WWII.

So, yes, The Eye of the Day is a story about princesses, but princesses who might be dancers or wives of spies. It is also a story about monsters who could be heroes, giants who could be saviours, and men in finely crafted suits who could be murderers. It is about power and powerlessness. It plays out timelessly and against recognizable historic backdrop. But readers will have to suss out the fairy tales from the truths. Even photographs and film cannot be trusted.

“But according to Aunt Ethyl, the picture gave little away. It didn’t show that Nazi planes flew on lead-tetraethyl fuel and Nazi tanks rode on synthetic rubber tires manufactured by Standard Oil of New Jersey and DuPont Chemical. It didn’t show that Ethyl Inc. was a collaborative venture with IG Farben of the Third Reich, or that synthetic oil ran every machine on the Axis side of the war. It didn’t show the American workers in the New Jersey plant going mad and dying from lead poisoning, or the lawyers convincing the Attorney General that ‘Lead is a gift from God.’”

Divinity and tyranny, madness and prophecy, gold and oil, visions and atrocities: there is alchemy at work in Dennison Smith’s novel, literally and metaphorically. Even the elements shift. A single reading transforms into a re-reading and then into a fresh reading as another layer is revealed.

“He learned that the eye at war was different than the eye in peacetime. In war some visions were permanent, like cataracts falling over the eye. Other visions, equally atrocious, were impossible to capture at all—one atrocity being replaced too quickly by another. He learned from the Indian man with the eyecup, before he fell under a tank, that air was the vehicle of the eye. But he saw for himself that air, earth and water could all in an instant become fire.”

The author explains on her website that her first name, Dennison, is a family name. “I’ve often had the feeling that my name was my first story.”

In much the same way that a single name can hold a history, the words which comprise a single novel can evoke mythic truths; The Eye of the Day urges readers to face the darkness within and without and simultaneously celebrates and mourns the possibilities therein.

Have you read Dennison Smith’s work before? Is this novel on your TBR?