This is from Gabriel’s neighbour, Giuditta. “One day Gabriel opened up more than usual and told me he had four sons. From four different women. In four different countries.”
The reader wonders if perhaps he opened up more to her than to anyone; Gabriel is a cipher, someone the reader knows only as an absence.
“He said it like it was the most normal thing in the world. I didn’t believe him of course. At the time, I thought he had a very strange way of combating his loneliness, with his dry sense of humour.”
She, like the reader of Jordi Puntí’s Lost Luggage, is simply receiving Gabriel’s story but she heard it from him directly.
The reader is receiving Gabriel’s story through the eyes of those four sons. As yet, there is no complete narrative, no overarching understanding.
“All of us want to come up with the improbable mathematical formula for one father and four mothers dotted around Europe.”
These are the Christophers, brought together by the disappearance of their father.
This story might have a tragic and angry tone, but just as Gabriel’s humour surprises Giuditta, readers will find that the Christophers’ recounting has a playful side to it too.
“Our father Gabriel’s refuge is still a mystery; complex, intangible, fleeting and inaccessible all those years, it might well be that its only manifestation is here in these pages (like footsteps in the snow revealing the passage of an invisible man), and putting the last full stop in place will be the only way of giving it substance.”
Each of the boys tells his own story which, in turn, illuminates his understanding (and experience) of his father’s life.
And there is something frankly restorative to the act of creating a narrative.
“It’s as if we can rewrite our lonely upbringings, as if those childhoods without brothers or sisters, which sometimes weighed heavily on us in a strange adult way – making us feel so helpless – can be partially rectified because now we know some of our father’s secrets.”
It’s an alternative to therapy, they joke. Despite the decidedly unfunny side to the situation.
“Given all this evidence, the easiest thing would be to recognise that Dad was a compulsive liar, and we certainly wouldn’t be wrong about that, but that explanation seems too simple. For the moment, we’re not interested in condemning him but just finding out where he is. Who he is. If we succeed some day, then we’ll ask for explanations.”
Each of them has a distinct voice.
“Now that I’m at the wheel, they want me to speed through this story like a taxi lunatic driver, skidding round corners, taking short cuts down side streets and racing through red lights. Faster, faster, we’ll leave you a good tip. Come on, spare us the details and get us to the airport. Hurry, hurry!”
And their narratives are tangled.
“Although you can only live by moving forward, existence, any existence, only makes sense when you look back and try to understand it as a whole. We leave a biography behind, like the trail of a snake in the sand. Well, this is the comforting illusion that many people cling to. In the end, it’s not unlike the risky exercise of trying to interpret a dream. We take four or five scenes that we cling to just as we’re waking up…..”
But there is a shape to the narrative which leaves room for the reader. (And Julie Wark’s translation leaves the authorial voice – and the assorted Christophers – to tell their tale without additional complications via translation.)
“Each of us will construct his own narrative around this memory and inform it with whatever meaning suits him best, but what makes us proud, what makes true brothers of us, is that the origin of it will be the same for all of us. Yes, that’s right: it’s the present – Sunday morning.”
In turn, the reader constructs a narrative around the memories of these four young men and in Jordi Puntí’s Lost Luggage, something like truth is assembled in the present.
In Jayne Anne Phillips’ Quiet Dell, the author constructs a narrative around a murder case and trial in Virginia in the 1930s.
On August 30, 1931, The Clarksburg Telegram reported as follows:
“Quiet Dell No Longer Quiet – Quiet Dell was the noisiest and busiest place in West Virginia yesterday. Thousands of automobiles were parked for miles along the Clarksburg-Buckhannon highway. No accurate estimate can be made of the numbers who have visited the ‘Murder farm.’ State policemen say they were too busy handling traffic to attempt to count the automobiles but there must have been 50,000 at least, yesterday and Saturday night.”
The reader takes a seat in the audience, an ironic placement secured by the perspective of young Annabel.
“There’s a hum of admiration or excitement, and a swell of whisper like applause. Then the lights on the stage darken. I hear people weeping, so moved are they by the production.”
As one of the children who was murdered, Annabel’s voice immediately engenders sympathy and curiosity, for her point-of-view is ethereal even though it is the most solid representation of what the reader truly cannot know or experience.
To more concretely piece together an understanding, the reader must rely on characters like the reporter and the banker, who play essential roles in the events preceding and following the deaths.
“Mr. O’Boyle,” Emily said, “I’m interested, not just in the hard news of the case, but in the family, in who they were, and what was lost.” Emily fell silent. She must let him set the tone.
“They were not lost,” O’Boyle said. “They were cruelly deceived, and taken.”
In addition to newspaper excerpts, there are also photographs which add to the experience of the story, not only of the children (Annabel, Hart and Grethe) and their mother (Asta Eicher), but of Duty, the bull terrier who belonged to the family.
Alongside the photograph of the surviving dog, it is noted that the Eicher family has been his second family, because his first also had been lost (taken, as O’Boyle might declare) in a tornado.
Such peculiar details are considered alongside broader truths and incomprehensible contradictions.
“The fields were flung out around them; miles of grain and corn lay open to the cloudless sky. It was pitiless and beautiful. She did not believe in evil, but in mistakes and conditions, in cause and effect across arcs so long that history might seem reasonless, but never was.”
The focus in Quiet Dell is, as the reader would expect, on the plot, but Jayne Anne Phillips’ prose is dotted with some lovely images.
One character strains to remember, “details accumulated like filings to a magnet”. On the road, the “town unscrolled like a newsreel as they passed”. And Emily notices observes Gretchen Fleming at the trial, with her purse on her lap; Emily could see her press and release the clasp”.
The novel is, with this deft touch, as entertaining as it is unsettling, and unsettling furthermore because it is entertaining.
“Because it is a trial about the loss of five lives, not a play or musical review. Do you see?” She sighed. “I condemn them, but I myself will take my place in the audience.”
Quiet Dell is a beautifully written novel, but when the reader recalls that its root is in history, the beauty becomes starkly horrifying. What Jayne Anne Phillips assembles is a story that shatters as quickly as it takes shape.
Both Lost Luggage and Quiet Dell take a framework of unknowns and invite the reader to assemble a version of truth by briefly inhabiting these authors’ imaginations: that’s what good fiction does.