In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden

by Kathleen Cambor

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

258 pages, 2001


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In Sunlight or in Shadow

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning

 

Historical novels generally try to accomplish two aims which at first glance seem paradoxical. The best ones seem to exhale the air of a vanished time, recreating with nuance and detail an era which will never come again. At the same time, many of them draw parallels to the present day with their stories of human passion, ambition and corruption, echoing the adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Kathleen Cambor's In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden accomplishes this aim of swimming in both directions. She recreates post-Civil War Pennsylvania as a shadowed and suffocating time in which the trauma of war has not so much been forgotten as repressed. Repression and its high emotional cost is a major theme in Cambor's second novel, which appropriately centers around the bursting of a great dam on an exclusive lake resort at South Fork in 1889. Twenty million tons of water roared into Johnstown, Pennsylvania on Memorial Day weekend, drowning one person in nine for a death toll of over 2,200.

In an eerie echo of modern-day cover-ups, this tragedy was hardly a random accident, but the product of slipshod engineering, poor maintenance and the denial and arrogance of the elite group who patronized the resort. It's a juicy idea for a novel and Cambor mines it for all it's worth, creating a slowly-escalating tension that builds almost unbearably until the horrendous, yet oddly cathartic release of the flood in the book's final pages. As with stories of the Titanic, we already know the outcome going in, including the fact that many of the characters we've become so involved with will not survive.

Perhaps to ground her book in authenticity, Cambor features such powerful historical figures as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon in her story (not to mention cameo appearances by the likes of Davy Crockett, Charles Dickens and Walt Whitman). But the most vital part of the story is carried by less-exalted fictional characters who fight their own private battles, eventually being drawn together by the disaster of the Johnstown flood.

Two families (the Fallons and the Talbots) dominate, connected by one of the strangest romances in contemporary fiction. Middle-aged Frank Fallon has struggled upwards from dirt-poor Irish roots to relative middle-class comfort as the foreman of a steel mill. His wife Julia has endured another kind of stigma, the professional disgrace of her idealistic physician father due to a failed experimental surgical procedure. Like most of the characters in this novel, Julia has a formidable secret in her past which she is trying to live down.

But her troubles do not end there. In one of the book's most harrowing passages, a deadly diphtheria epidemic suddenly kills two of her four children, leaving her to cope with "the truncated, stunned existence on the other side of the impossible abyss of child loss": "She was just thirty-three and a half dozen of her girlhood friends were dead already. She understood that people had large families to ensure against such dying. Death was excruciating, painful, but it was not supposed to be surprising. One was not allowed to be surprised. Or stricken. One was not supposed to wallow in it."

Julia swallows her grief and dies emotionally, nearly destroying her marriage to Frank and her feelings for her two surviving children, Caroline and Daniel. Only years later, when she meets a vivacious librarian named Grace McIntyre (who has a host of secrets of her own) does Julia begin to come back to life. But by then, Frank Fallon, long starved for love, has fallen for Grace himself.

Complicated stuff &endash; but this is only a small portion of a dense, convoluted story. James Talbot, a lawyer burdened with a conscience, unwittingly plays a role in the Johnstown tragedy: he is the one who reluctantly files the charter for the South Fork resort, an elite hunting and fishing club in the Allegheny Mountains: "It was to be exclusive, private (membership never to exceed one hundred), with a magnificent 450-acre lake .... Everyone of influence in the city would be part of it."

But James is all too aware of the ongoing problems with the huge earth dam holding back the millions of tons of water that form the artificial lake. Though he barely has the social status to get in, he becomes a member of the club for the sole purpose of anxiously watching the dam in the belief that this will somehow avert disaster.

His wife Evelyn has lived through private hells of her own, as in this passage which exemplifies the strangling morals of the time: "When Evelyn was fourteen, long after the three of them assumed that their family was complete, her mother revealed that she was pregnant .... She was forty. What became clear immediately, although it was never spoken of, was that the pregnancy was viewed as something shameful, a sign of lust and indiscretion, evidence of a wanton sexuality . One ought to have given up sex completely by her age or, at least, have learned to be discreet about it." When Evelyn's sister is born mentally handicapped, she must be kept hidden away as shameful evidence of a moral lapse. This heavy sense of stigma only seems to escalate Evelyn's high expectations of her own daughter Nora, a bright, ambitious girl who chafes at the suffocating restrictions on women of her time.

Enter Daniel Fallon, Frank's surviving son, who sees past Nora's unseemly exterior to the fine mind beneath it. Their intense attraction to each other leads to one of the strangest, most prolonged and erotically frustrating courtships on record. For years, Daniel watches Nora from afar at the South Fork resort, leaving her little notes and gifts but never speaking to her. In fact the novel's title comes from a quote from Maetterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande: "I have been watching you; you were there, unconcerned perhaps, but with the strange distraught air of someone forever expecting a great misfortune, in sunlight, in a beautiful garden."

Talk about repression, sexual and otherwise -- these two never even meet, let alone touch, for scores of pages as the erotic tension between them continues to escalate. Though the bursting of this figurative dam seems as inevitable as the South Fork flood, the outcome is a frustrating anticlimax.

This is not the only problem with In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, which in spite of its richness is full of knots that block the flow of the action. Cambor's technique for establishing her characters is patchwork: a little of this story, a little of that, with prodigious back story for even the most minor characters. These flashbacks mean that the story moves backwards as much as forwards, a sort of emotional drag-back which makes a book about repression that much more oppressive to read. Though some passages are stunning, including the long-awaited flood, others are a bit dreary: connective tissue filling in a host of tiny historical details.

But it's impossible not to admire the structure of this elaborate, if somewhat airless edifice of a book, with its rooms within rooms, hidden passageways and plenty of dark closets full of decaying secrets. Even Nora, the determined survivor who makes it through the Johnstown flood, is seen many years later at novel's end facing yet another agonizing loss. It's a stark and broody finish to a novel which in spite of its misleadingly sunny title probes the corruption in the hearts of men which inevitably leads on to tragedy. | April 2001

 

Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.