by Kristin Allio
Published by Coffee House Press
221 pages, 2005
Caught in New Hampshire
Reviewed by David Abrams
Kirstin Allio's fresh first novel, Garner, is framed by the discovery of a young girl's body floating in Blood Brook near the small town of Garner, New Hampshire, in 1925. Teenage Frances Giddens is a free-spirited youth who moves through the local forest like a gossamer-winged wood nymph and is the object of suppressed longing from several of the novel's characters.
While Frances' death holds the narrative of the book like tentpoles on either end, the novel is as much about the town, the land and its residents as it is about the murder of young Frances, the girl with a "silver and green laugh."
From the moment the town's postman first discovers Frances' body in the water, Garner moves back and forth across space and time like a skipping gust of wind. Allio writes in short, lyrical paragraphs with a poet's ear. As the novel frequently shifts perspective, we feel like we're floating omnisciently above the New Hampshire forests, catching snatches of conversations and lives.
Postman Willard Heald, the closest thing to a main character, is our initial guide as we move through Garner's landscape populated with "men of sweat and blood." The self-appointed scribe of the town, Heald knows most of Garner's secrets and chronicles them in his notebooks for the history he is compiling. Allio writes: "Willard Heald heard everything with his ears made of envelopes." He also has the disturbing habit of reading the mail before it is delivered and so, like a switchboard operator, he knows a little bit about everybody in a community trying to cling to the old ways even as the wolf is at the door.
We also meet Frances' father, "a lean and horse-gray man who played the organ with great sympathy," who has made the controversial decision to neglect his farmland for a season and turn his home into a boarding house for summer tourists. And there is one of those boarders, Malin Nillsen -- cut from the cloth of an Edith Wharton novel -- who comes to vacation in Garner with her fiancée but then finds herself sympathetic to the plain country folk her entourage of friends make fun of. There is also a scandal-plagued "fallen woman" who escapes Garner but finds life is just as hard in the city, a widowed farmer forced to sell his land to a rich couple from the city, Heald's wife who quietly distrusts her husband's frequent outings into the woods, and perhaps a half-dozen other characters who help form the portrait of a small, turn-of-the-century farming community.
But it is Garner itself which is the axis of the novel. Everything revolves around "the slip of land, sail-shaped." Garner reveals the decay of small-town society in much the same way that Sherwood Anderson chronicled it in Winesburg, Ohio. Through sentences which mirror the formality of early 20th-century literature, Allio immerses the reader in a world which is being pushed and pulled and squeezed by the rapidly-encroaching urban growth along the Eastern seaboard. Garner stands like a trembling, defiant animal in the center of the road as a newfangled automobile of progress bears down on its staid traditions and quiet rhythms.
As Heald the postman tells us, in the town's ordinances it is written that "Women can be anything they want as long as they are wives. Men can be anything they want as long as they can fix their own machines." These rural, Puritanical ideals are now threatened by the intrusion of tourists and new residents coming from the big city where the sexual Jazz Age revolution is boiling over. The slick, mocking urbanites bring money, power and a sense of danger. Ripples and repercussions spread through the town, changing it forever with the catalyst of the murder.
Allio wisely begins the novel with news of Frances' death and doesn't reveal the circumstances until the closing pages. As we read, we are always haunted by the knowledge of her pending death and that gives urgency to these pages. Frances is more than a victim of lust; she is a symbol for nature -- much like that other descendant of Puritans, Nathaniel Hawthorne, used the wild, dark forest to give his stories deeper meaning. Ultimately, the circumstances of Frances' death, the who behind the dunnit (and indeed it's never quite clear exactly how she dies), are less important than the fact that a vital piece of Garner dies with this young girl.
Fair warning: Garner is not always the easiest novel to absorb and impatient readers might give up in its earliest pages because of the way the language tangles and knots. But those who commit to at least 40 pages, as I did, will find themselves slipping into Allio's deftly-created world. They will be carried away by the current of esoteric diction, eventually absorbed by the lives of the novel's characters. Hours later, they will look up from the novel, blink, and wonder where they are. This is one of the few novels I've read where the 21st century becomes an unwelcome intrusion. I found myself returning again and again to the book to escape the jangle of telephones and hissing buzz of the television. Though I was initially put off by its stiff sentences, Garner ultimately won me over and wouldn't let me go. This is easily the most important book I've read this year. | March 2006
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.