London novelist Page’s first US appearance recounts the trauma of an emotionally and physically disfigured woman who makes sense of her tragic past.
Like many academics, Natalie Baron has a quiet and rather lonely childhood. The only offspring of a single mother, she spends much of her growing-up time roaming the streets while her mother “entertained” gentlemen callers at home. On one of these rambles, the 13-year-old meets Barbara and John Hern, a devout Protestant couple who lived nearby with their 14-year-old son Mark. Members of a tiny Lutheran sect founded by a 19th-century Finnish pastor named Tuomas Envall, the Herns (like all Envallists) take the commandment against “graven images” so literally that they won’t look at pictures or drawings of any kind. Brought up without television, storybooks, paintings, or even maps, Mark Hern develops into an intensely serious boy, and Natalie finds herself strangely drawn to him. Comforted by the atmosphere of order and discipline in the Hern house, she begins visiting them every day. Mark, sensing that Natalie will never be a true believer, treats her coolly, but Barbara (whose own daughter had died in infancy) becomes fond of the girl and eventually asks her to accompany the family on a holiday. We know (in flashbacks made from 30 years later on) that Natalie was horribly injured during that trip and that she eventually became a professor of religion and an expert on the life of Tuomas Envall. But we don’t learn the cause of Natalie’s injury, or the final discoveries of her research, until story’s end. Although the true tale of Envall’s life isn’t as dramatic as the tragedy that nearly killed Natalie, it’s explosive in its own way and explains a good deal—as does Natalie’s obsessive interest in learning the reality behind the myths.
Quietly powerful, with considerable emotional depth: an intriguing account of tortured faith and thwarted desire.