A series of linked passions runs through the famed poet’s life in this fictionalized biography.
Initially, this book seems to be far stranger than it really is: The title suggests a persona and possibly even a locale far outside how readers usually perceive the Belle of Amherst, and the opening chapters include supernatural meetings between the narrator and members of the Dickinson family. But before too long, the book settles down into a readable, though not revolutionary, portrait of the artist’s life and loves. As such, it may appeal particularly to fans of her poetry (some of which is about volcanoes) but perhaps not to readers looking for a weighty biography interwoven with heavily academic analysis of her work. Dickinson was a writer’s writer. She worked, famously, in isolation and uncompromisingly safeguarded the integrity of her words; she reportedly turned down offers of publication, justifiably fearing that her unorthodox form and punctuation would be altered. For her part, Lala-Crist (Nostos, 2001) literally inserts herself as narrator into the action of her novel. It’s clear with every line that she profoundly reveres Dickinson and feels a connection with her that transcends space and time—an intriguing idea, but there’s too little of Lala-Crist’s own personal history to make this a meaningful exploration. In the end, the most significant contribution here is the splicing together of Dickinson’s poetry and her biography, an approach missing, for instance, in Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (2011). Readers, especially those already entrenched in Dickinson studies, may not embrace every parallel Lala-Crist makes, but many connections are essential to an understanding of the poet and the person. Lala-Crist also deftly deals with Dickinson’s retreat from society in midlife; she stayed mostly in her own room and saw almost no one but her immediate family. Thanks to Lala-Crist’s empathetic portrayal, the presentation of this odd decision as gradual and organic—as opposed to a fit of passion precipitated by a dramatic event—rings true.
A highly personal view of Dickinson’s words and spirit that will find an appreciative audience among the poet’s kindred spirits.