Monday, November 10, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE POSSIBILITIES” by Kaui Hart Hemmings (Jonathan Cape / Random House, $NZ34:99)
I’ll begin this review with a painful confession. I never read the Hawaii-based American novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first novel The Descendants, though I knew it was highly praised. I did, however, see the movie version (starring George Clooney) and I was a little nonplussed. It, too, was highly praised as an insightful probe into the complexities of (wealthy) family life, and I quite enjoyed it as a grown-up drama. But I don’t recall it as living up to the best reviews. Had it been over-sold? Or did it miss some extra factor that was found in the original novel?
I had all this in mind when I sat down to read Kaui Hart Hemmings’ second novel, The Possibilities. Assuming that the film version of The Descendants more-or-less followed that novel, then the two novels have much in common. Both are set in locations usually associated with affluent people taking holidays (Hawaii in The Descendants; a skiing resort in The Possibilities). Both have a family coming to grips with trauma (a wife rendered comatose in an accident, and later dying, in The Descendants; a son killed in an accident in The Possibilities). Both are very much “aftermath” stories, dealing with how people reconstruct the past and try to adjust their lives once tragedy has happened.
Main character in The Possibilities is Sarah St.John, very specifically aged 43, livingwith her widowed father in the house where she has, as a solo mother, brought up her son Cully. When she found she was pregnant at the age of 21, she remained friends with Cully’s father Billy, but she never thought of marrying him. And now Cully, at the age of 22, has died in a skiing accident, cut down by an avalanche.
The setting is affluent middle-class.
Breckenridge, Colorado is “a small town… with 686 hotels and inns” because its population more than trebles in the skiing seasons. Sarah has a job as host and reporter for a local infomercial channel aimed at the tourists, and telling them where prices are best, which ski-fields and pistes are open and so forth.
Narrated by her in the first person and in the present tense, The Possibilities begins as a catalogue of the stages of Sarah’s maturing grief. Within the first two pages she is looking at other boys the same age as Cully and wishing she could still cuddle him:
“I look at these boys all the same age as my son, these boys with mothers and fathers, hopes and problems, and an embarrassing urge comes over me to hold them. To swoop them up in my arms, something that Cully as a child always wanted me to do and I’d often get annoyed. You’re a big boy. You can walk. At times he was such a jarring cargo, especially when he was first born and I was only twenty-one. He felt like a school project, the egg I was supposed to carry around and not ever leave or break.” (Chapter 1)
The first wave of grief brings out the protective mother’s attitude towards an infant.
Then there are the irritations of other people extending sympathy and being too nice and considerate to her in ways that sound either forced or patronising. Two or three months after Cully’s death, Sarah has returned to her TV work and has a hard time playing along with the type of trivia the job demands. Death puts infomercials into perspective.
There’s also an element of possessiveness and even competitiveness to her grief. Her friend Suzanne is going through a messy divorce. Each woman wants to scream that her problem is the more important. Each restrains herself from doing so. Awkwardness hangs between them, especially as Suzanne’s daughter has taken it upon herself to organise some sort of memorial event for Sarah’s son, which Sarah sees as a bit of an imposition and an intrusion into her territory.
The world is unhelpful. Sarah’s elderly father Lyle, now retired, spends much of the day watching infomercials and buying junk. (Although later he proves to be more perceptive than he at first seems.)
So the novel ambles for about its first third or so, making us exactly aware of the social class, the circumstances and the tastes of all these characters, as well as how Sarah’s mental state is brewing. It is, dare I say, a little like a grief therapy manual.
Plot development as such begins only when, clearing Cully’s room out, Sarah begins to understand that she might not have known her son as well as she thought she did. Perhaps her memories of the recently deceased Cully are idealised ones? In the first place, she discovers that her son supplemented his income with some drug dealing. A relatively trivial matter in this milieu, where most of the affluent ones seems to puff some weed recreationally.
More important, a bit shy of halfway through the novel, a girl called Kit turns up.
She is pregnant with Cully’s child.
At which point, as is my custom, I abandon my synopsis, having given you the set-up but being determined not to spike a new novel’s intended surprises, which would be bad-mannered. Let’s just say that a lot of people become involved in Kit’s problem – Sarah, Lyle, Billy, Suzanne – all with different viewpoints on whether Kit’s pregnancy is a blessing or a curse.
There are some moments of good writing here. When Sarah has just learnt Kit’s secret, she opens the front door and gets a blast of the mountain air, which is like the freshness of the new revelation to her:
“I open the front door; the air is cutting. I will always love the mountains for this: the initial step outdoors, the decisive air, the bruised blue of night and swarm of stars, the chomp of snow, and the silence, all of it enlivening and heartbreaking. A chunk of snow drops off the branch of the spruce tree and onto the hood of the angry-looking truck. Motes sparkle in the air. I don’t know how it is that I’m registering the air, the night, when here she is, Kit, this burden, this mystery. Maybe this is how it will be from now on? Nothing can be shocking. Nothing could be harder.” (beginning of Chapter 10)
There are, almost inevitably, moments where Sarah reflects on how unknowable other people’s families are:
“You can know people so well and still make discoveries about them as a family, but you’ll never know everything, the mundane day-to-day, the behaviours when the doors are closed. Families are all such elite clubs.” (Chapter 15)
I do not belittle Kaui Hart Hemmings’ ability to make vivid a particular social milieu.
And yet, in the end, I did find this one a little too pat, too obviously created for the middlebrow market who want an “issue” in their novels.
The author entertains all the possibilities of what Kit could do with her baby, but it’s quite plain to see what view she holds herself and much of the novel’s latter half reads like polite propaganda. There is a little bit of humour in Sarah’s first-person voice, but these characters are so reasonable and considerate about everything, so ready to listen to other people’s views, that you long for an hysterical outburst. And isn’t the novel’s timeframe a little off? Would a woman who centred her life on her son really reach serenity, balance and a new view of life a mere three months after her son’s death?
Maybe, but I don’t quite buy it.
And what is it about the first-person present-tense narration? Of course it manufactures a sense of immediacy, but often it makes the characters sound as if they do not know anything but the present moment.
Pardon me. I’m sure many people will find this a meaningful and well-crafted novel. Apparently a movie version is in the works, and I’m sure it will be the same sort of tasteful affair that the movie of The Descendants was.