THE COUNTRY by David Plante
Kirkus Star


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Notwithstanding a National Book Award nomination, Plente's The Family (1978) was an underrated and grossly neglected masterwork: one of the most moving and altogether impressive family novels of its decade. So it will be ironic if this short, often affecting, but less fully satisfying sequel--which returns to the Francoeurs of Providence, R.I., some 20 years later and repeats many of the same themes--wins the wide acclaim which The Family deserved. Here again, then, are bitter ""Père"" and unstable ""Mère,"" working-class parents of seven sons--two of whom have stayed near over the years. . . while the others, like narrator Daniel (a writer living in London), have more or less escaped the claustrophobic strangulation of The Family. But now the parents are nearly 80, failing, and next-to-youngest Daniel finds himself compelled to visit more often. Twice he comes to help brothers Edmond and Albert with the caretaking of the sometimes-childlike old people: he cuts his father's toenails, urges him to work at his carpentry, drives him to their ill-fated country place, listens to his despair (""I've been a bad man""), weeps with him; Mire, whose mental illness was one of The Family's cornerstones, is contorted with silences, false smiles, flashes of angry wit, seemingly willful shifts in and out of senility. ""I want to write about being with my father,"" says Daniel with cruel honesty, ""but I don't want to be with him. . . . I want to leave, but I must stay, I thought; I must."" And then, after a very brief flashback to the period of The Family (a family reunion in the country turns sour), Daniel visits once again. But this time it's for Père's wake and funeral--during which Mère, seemingly freed, shows a new loquacious self, pouring out a terrible mixture of nonsense and insight: ""I went to this country where everyone walks backwards, I swear, I swear to you, they never go forward, only backwards. . . ."" This isolation, this awareness of Mère and Père living in their own lonely country, is again the most particular, gripping element in Plante's quietly sorrowful treatment of his family; after bathing Mire (an almost unbearable sequence), he says, ""I saw in my mother a little warped body of suffering which seemed to have nothing, nothing to do with the outside world."" A weak related theme here, however--Daniel's reaching into his father's part-Indian ancestry--blunts the effect, as does a limply poetic final scene with Daniel wandering through his father's ""country"" to declare his oneness with it. And readers unfamiliar with The Family may find this new book by itself oddly sketchy, with the feeling of a short story plumped out to short-novel length. Still, through almost all of this, Plante's narration is starkly, yet gently, pared-to-the-bone; and though the subject of aged parents may be dealt with far more expansively in William Wharton's Dad, Plante's selective vision has its own nudging impact. Only an addendum, perhaps--but a Frae-tuned and powerful one.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
ISBN: 0807083798
Publisher: Atheneum