IMAGINARY CRIMES by Sheila Ballantyne
Kirkus Star


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In small, welt-like sections of appalling, eloquently restrained power, Ballantyne here sets out the scarified life of Sonya Weiler: the daughter of a mother and father who were ghost-like and incomplete to her even before their deaths--and therefore even more tormentingly so after. Sonya's earliest childhood, before and during World War II, is in Seattle. Her father Raymond is hapless with money, bigoted, yet a continual dreamer after wealth (in a series of empty mining schemes). Her mother Valery is permanently disappointed; and Valery's young and awful death--from breast cancer, untreated (the Weilers being Christian Scientists)--seems only the fitting result of so stymied and mingy a life. So, with widower Raymond fast-talking a succession of housekeeper-lovers into taking care of motherless Sonya and baby sister Greta, life continues as one long disaster: Raymond tries a scare and incurs a grand larceny sentence; Greta is sent away to live with Valery's old mother; Sonya bravely but very poorly goes off to college (four brief years of freedom); Greta then becomes Sonya's domiciled ward, a sort of daughter. And Raymond ends up living seedily alone in Reno, with increasingly tatty success plans; saddest of all, nearly unbearable to read, is Raymond's idea that college-educated Sonya should write a book called My Father Remembers. (He explains: ""'My Father Remembers'--the famous murder case in New York City--where Harry Kendall Thaw shot and killed Stanford White. And 'My Father Remembers' reading the newspapers every day during the infamous trial of Sacco and Vanzetti!'"") Finally, then, Raymond becomes an ever greater psychic burden--and when he's finally lost in the mountains, the body not to be found for five years after, his banal mysteriousness comes full circle. Admittedly, Ballantyne (Norma Jean the Termite Queen) concludes on a less than wholly effective note: Sonya's self-cleansing by returning to the Seattle locales of her childhood. But if the novelistic shape here is imperfect, the relentless accumulation of humiliations (Raymond and Sonya going, for instance, to buy a burial dress for Valery) is overwhelming: as in David Plante's recent novels, the shames of family life are made the stuff of the most moving fiction. A very sad book, then, and--more important--a very fine one.

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 1981
Publisher: Viking