Flipping through the first few pages of Julia Glass’s new novel, And the Dark Sacred Night, readers are greeted with the epigraph “Every knot was once straight rope.” Knots are an apt metaphor for Glass’ characters, whose lives are tangled and tethered with one another, and whose stories often string through multiple books.
Fans of Glass’s National Book Award-winning book Three Junes (2002) will be delighted to discover that her new novel features some of the beloved characters Glass started conjuring 30 years ago (when Three Junes was in short story form)—the noble, bookish Scottsman-turned-New Yorker Fenno McLeod; the aging Vermont social crusader Lucinda Burns; and her son, the fiercely intelligent New York Times music critic, Malachy. While Glass offers a fresh-faced protagonist for Sacred Night in Kit Noonan, her recurring characters—now two decades older—reemerge fully formed, giving readers the sense that we are not just entering Glass’ latest work but her world, one that exists beyond the boundaries of individual book bindings.
“After Three Junes, I was certain that everything I would write would be stand-alone,” says Glass. “I never imagined that any characters would come back.” Yet midway through her second novel, The Whole World Over, which, like Three Junes, is set partly in modern Greenwich Village, Glass realized that new and old characters would likely bump into each other around the neighborhood. Glass was intrigued but wary about the idea. “At first I thought, ‘Am I doing this as a crutch? Was this organic or contrived?’ But I let it flow.” Glass’ editor was encouraging, as were her fans. “When I was touring for Three Junes and The Whole World Over and readers would ask, ‘Will you bring that character back?’ I would bristle. But now I feel like it means you’ve created characters that are three-dimensional.”
Glass has said that every one of her books begins with a character in some dilemma; Sacred Night follows that form. Kit Noonan is a middle-aged unemployed art history scholar with a set of 10-year-old twins, a leaky roof in a New Jersey suburb, and a wife who wants him either on the job hunt or out of the house. Convinced that the real culprit of Kit’s problems is the unanswered question of his paternity, Kit’s wife eventually kicks him out to go find the father he’s never known. Kit’s mother, Daphne, once a cello prodigy before she became pregnant with Kit as a teenager, refuses to divulge anything, leading Kit to the mountains of Vermont where he bunks up with Daphne’s ex-husband Jasper Noonan. Noonan, a wise, aging wilderness guide, is surely one of the most endearing characters Glass has created. “Things that make sense don’t always make sense,” Jasper tells Kit. Jasper, the closest thing Kit has had to a father, makes sense to Kit.
“One of the relationships that fascinates me endlessly is the relationship between grown children and their parents,” says Glass. “And that is a relationship that is extremely steeped in the past.” Kit’s search, aided by Jasper (who holds a few secrets of his own), takes him to the farmland of Vermont and the shores of Rhode Island. Along he way, he probes the questions that hold the key to his identity: What makes a father? What constitutes a family? Do parents have a right to hide painful truths from their children? Do people have a right to escape their mistakes or must they bear them like a burden forever?
For Kit—and for Glass—understanding the past is critical to moving forward. In Sacred Night one character explains, “The past is never really past. Do you know that song, ‘What a Wonderful World’?...I’m taken every time by this: ‘the bright blessed day and the dark sacred night’…..The past is like the night: dark yet sacred….We think of the day as the time we really live, the only time that matters, because the stuff we do by day somehow makes us who we are. We feel the same way about the present. But there is no day without night, no wakefulness without sleep, no present without past. They are constantly somersaulting over each other.” (Here Glass has written perhaps the only passage in American literature to echo Faulkner, Freud and Louis Armstrong.)
“I’m the product of 20 years of psychotherapy,” admits Glass, “and I’ve joked that I write in a psychotheraputive rhythm. Imagine you’re in a therapist’s office: you’re talking about your day and the therapist asks you about something that takes you back to the past. Then you’re back to the present. Like a loom, you’re weaving back and forth the whole time.”
As Kit pieces together his family history, Glass flashes back to let other characters fill in their strands of the story—Daphne’s young love, Malachy’s tragic fate, Lucinda’s selfish choice, Fenno’s attempt at reconciliation. For Glass’ characters, no one is completely free. All are tied together by the past, woven into a tapestry of taut, beautiful knots.
Kirk Reed Forrester is a freelance writer based in Houston.