I’ve mentioned it before, that little tingle you get when you feel like a book might just be the perfect match for you.
And I know you know it. (I last mentioned it about Meg Mitchell Moore’s So Far Away, but sometimes it just goes without saying.)
I felt it when I was reading Patrick Somerville’s first novel The Cradle (2009), but when it came to articulating why that was so, I realized that there wasn’t anything outstanding about the details of the plot or the characters or, even, the style.
Ultimately I settled on this passage from The Cradle to explain what drew me to Patrick Somerville’s storytelling.
Matt tried to imagine the course of Marissa’s thoughts after he said it. Most times he was wrong when he tried to predict the paths in her mind — she seemed to have an unpredictable sense of direction when it came to thinking. You could be talking about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with her, wait ten seconds, and she would turn and ask you whether you had ever been to Kansas. And there was some sort of reasoning, some chain that led her from this to that. Now, as he waited, he thought that maybe the paths were leading her down to the night her mother had come home, then past that to a picture of the cradle in the sanctuary she’d found for it. Then past that to other places, dark grottoes where her mother slept with strange men, or past that and into sterile rooms where the women screamed in the throes of labor. Perhaps there was war, too. Perhaps she found herself all the way back, at Gettysburg, the cradle in the center of the battlefield as both armies, insectlike, converged.
It’s not the details about Matt and Marissa (though they are believable characters, the kind you can relate to readily, even when they make decisions that leave you shaking your head). It’s not about the pursuit of the cradle. It’s not the tension inherent in those dark grottoes or the allusions in the final sentences.
It’s about Patrick Somerville’s understanding of those paths in Marissa’s mind, of that chain that led Marissa from this to that, the chain that leads each of the characters in his stories and the paths of each character. It’s about the trust that a reader can have in a storyteller when the writer understands those things about all of the characters in his stories.
This Bright River exhibits the same quiet attention-to-detail, the same soaked-in-character storytelling.
The details of this story surround Ben Hanson and Lauren Sheehan, who worked on a project together in high school and are now both grown and, for different reasons, back in their hometown.
Neither is immediately likeable; each is struggling with a particular issue, and has had difficulties relating with specific people in their lives, which impacts their ability to cope in the present-day. Dysfunction: the ordinary stuff of novels.
Ben begins by trying to explain to readers:
“How do I say it without putting people off? We’ve only just met. For some time I’d been feeling as though my whole self were coated in Novocain.”
His sister, Haley, warns him (and readers) of the risks:
“I don’t understand what happened. I don’t understand what went wrong.”
“I know,” I said. “But it’s really very boring.”
And Ben has to consider other warnings as well:
“I mean, I feel like I know and have known people whose whole lives are focused on lying, like the actual meaning of their lives, and it’s by far their greatest skill, you know? People who’ve worked at it for thirty years. And then there’s a whole class of people who can’t really control it, and past them, there’s a whole class of people who don’t even know that they’re doing it as they do it. And I mean, Jesus, have you ever known a hard-core addict?”
These quotes reveal the direct style of the narrative (it really is as though Ben is speaking directly to you, at times, the reader feeling thoroughly in his head), the use of dialogue (realistic, but not to the point of um’s and ah’s), and the emphasis on both interior drama and difficult issues (like addiction, depression, grief, loss, betrayal).
It is a long novel (more than 400 pages), but once immersed in the characters, the reader is unaware of the amount of text, as the story steadily moves towards its heart (a series of unexpected maneuvers leading somewhere that perhaps should have been recognizable, but that pattern only emerges wholly after the events have played out).
“The real place. Not the idea of the place. And in the map of the world in my mind, this place, here, was the epicenter of so much that scared me.”
In discussing the intricacies of game design, this observation is made, and it fits with Patrick Somerville’s novel as well:
“It’s an experience. It’s about the way it’s all put together. People pay for that – for the recombinations. That’s what drives the economy now. The how, not the what. People pay for that.”
The individual components of Patrick Somerville’s novels might not drive the economy, but the recombinations, all those paths and chain-making, that’s what pulls me in: that’s what urged me to add his name to my list of Must-Read-Everything authors (two short story collections remain).