The anxious aftermath of World War II and the turbulent confusion of the late 1960s provide the dual settings for Lent’s latest exploration of the American psyche (A Slant of Light, 2015, etc.).
Katey Snow is just 17 when she takes off from her home in Vermont, headed for Virginia on an odyssey set in motion by a stunning family revelation. Its precise nature slowly becomes clear as Katey’s journey crosscuts with the history of her parents’ marriage, shadowed by Oliver Snow’s traumatic experiences as a soldier in Germany. Lent, a quietly bold writer who rarely takes the expected path, makes this novel as much about mothers and daughters as about men and war. Jo Hale tries to warn daughter Ruth that dreamy, melancholic Oliver is unlikely to come back whole, and her warnings are borne out by the postwar silences that fester between the couple even though they love each other. And the disclosure that unmoored Katey was the culmination of years of sniping between her and Ruth, for whom her daughter incarnates the forces of unruly change threatening to shatter her world’s precarious equilibrium. Katey, for her part, views Ruth as “a tired bitter woman with a wasted life,” a cruel adolescent observation belied by Lent’s delicate portrait of the complicated realities of Ruth’s and Oliver’s lives, both sustained and constrained by their close-knit families and their small-town society. As usual, Lent brings his fictional world alive in brilliant physical detail: thickly textured descriptions of the fiddle-playing that consoles Oliver, of Ruth’s cooking, and of the varied landscapes through which Katey drives. The Vietnam-era background is slightly more rote than Lent’s perfect rendering of 1940s America (getting over the Good War by not actually talking about it), and Katey is a somewhat less interesting character than her parents. But the interplay between their stories makes for a heartbreaking examination of the fraught bonds of kinship and community.
Beautifully written and powerfully compassionate: more fine work from a modern master.