TROMPE L'OEIL by Nancy Reisman


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A slow, lyrical exploration of a family's unspooling after the death of a child.

As Reisman's (The First Desire, 2004) second novel begins, James and Nora Murphy are about to take their three young children on vacation from their home in Massachusetts to Rome. One of them dies in an accident there, and the novel follows the survivors, and two children born later, for decades. In those years, just about every other bad thing that can happen to a family piles on to the original tragedy, accruing in short chapters and poetic language. A landscape: "August thunderstorms...jagged lines to the northeast, and the felt-sense of water spilling over into the dark." A sex scene: "a place of liquid and muscle and bone. A salt tang, a pale gray drifting...." A dinner: "the kettle almost announcing itself as kettle, the paper shell of the garlic feathery against his skin, tart slices of lemon brilliant on the counter." One admires Reisman's skill, but these lapidary descriptions eventually become tiresome. Ornamenting the narrative further are vignettes analyzing various paintings and sculptures which can be seen in Rome—by Caravaggio, Fetti, Bernini, many more. Each moves from description into second-person philosophical inquiry. "If she could escape the harsh light, the judging view, might the shame dissolve into more tender melancholy? Beyond the frame and any view—even yours—she might rest." If these sections develop the plot, it's so subtly that one could easily skip them, like the whaling chapters in Moby-Dick. Too many paintings, too many houses, too many emerald green pieces of broccoli: the Murphys' lives become as wearying to the reader as they are to the Murphys themselves.

An almost narcotically depressing novel; its fine writing, artsy digressions, and close psychological study require a special sort of reader.

Pub Date: May 12th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-941040-03-4
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Tin House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2015


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