An attempt to establish a new world Utopia in the American Southwest succumbs to a clash of genders and cultures in this subtly compelling historical novel, the author’s debut.
Boaz takes inspiration from the life of D.H. Lawrence and the painter who accompanied him and his German wife to forge a new life free from the cultural contaminations of supposedly civilized England. Narrated by Doll (short for Dorothy, a character inspired by painter Dorothy Brett, who came to New Mexico with the Lawrences), the novel shifts its chronology among three different periods. Most of the story concerns the years immediately following the emigration of the artistic-minded trio in 1924, as Abe Bronstone (the Lawrence figure) expounds his theories on raising the human consciousness within a community of Indians mixed with a motley assortment of Caucasians. Doll also flashes back to her formative years in England, as a neglected daughter and a sexually abused child who finds refuge in the arts, and she flashes forward to 1963, when she spends her later years with a much younger Indian man, as naive to the ways of the world as she had been. The switching among these three different time periods initially feels a little arbitrary, but Boaz pulls the various strands together in the novel’s second half, which builds to a riveting climax, as the influence of Bronstone’s strong-willed wife on the other women sparks tension between the Anglo and Indian cultures. Throughout the novel, Boaz turns the landscape itself into a protagonist, richer in detail than many of the characters. Physically unattractive and hard of hearing, Doll takes a leap of faith in following Bronstone, whom she alternately seems to consider a mentor, friend, lover and father figure (though they are roughly the same age). The stormy marriage of the Bronstones provides much of the narrative momentum, as the more submissive Doll decides where she fits between such strong-willed people.
Readers need know nothing about Lawrence and his circle to become engrossed in this evocative tale.