Thursday, December 4, 2014

White Bird in a Blizzard, by Laura Kasischke

I reached for this novel after seeing the wonderfully quirky film adaptation of it. As I've written many times before, I'll almost always choose the book over the movie, but this one is a tough call... The screenplay stayed very close to the novel's plot until the end, when the film took a delicious and unexpected twist.  Laura Kasischke is a poet as well as a novelist, though, so the book has some exquisite passages that film just can't touch.  The opening paragraph is a sensory delight, ethereal meeting mundane, and introducing us to a teen-aged narrator who will prove as elusive and puzzling as her mother's disappearance.

I am sixteen when my mother steps out of her skin one frozen January afternoon -- pure self, atoms twinkling like microscopic diamond chips around her, perhaps the chiming of a clock, or a few bright flute notes in the distance -- and disappears. No one sees her leave, but she is gone. Only the morning before, my mother was a housewife -- a housewife who, for twenty years, kept our house as swept up and sterile as the mind of winter itself, so perhaps she finally just whisk-broomed herself out, a luminous cloud of her drifting through the bedroom window as soft as talcum powder, mingling with the snowflakes as they fell, and the stardust and the lunar ash out there.
Teen-aged narrator Kat gives us our only image of her vanished mother, a desperately unhappy suburban housewife who loathes her husband. Like most girls her age, Kat vacillates between utter self-absorption and sympathy for her mother.
 ... she planted petunias in our yard, and by July of every year they were dried out. Like complaints, or exasperation. Our house was stuck into some of the world's most fertile earth -- black and loamy and damp -- and anything could have grown there. A handful of it was as heavy as a heart, or guilt. As a child, I used to dig it up with a plastic shovel and pretend to bake cakes and cookies, shapeless pastries patted out of gravity. That dough, that dirt, was as dark as space. For thousands of years, our backyard had been ice, and when the Ice Age ended it thawed into a swampy dinosaur forest, and when the dinosaurs got zapped by whatever zapped the dinosaurs, farmers came and turned it into farmland and country meadows, which were later bulldozed to make way for subdivisions with names like Country Meadows Estates.
Anything could have grown there, but my mother grew petunias. I never knew what she wanted, but I knew it wasn't in Garden Heights, and it wasn't my father.
Kat's response to her mother's disappearance is disturbingly nonchalant. She and her father soldier on -- not bravely, really, but more indifferently, as if they'd always known Eve would vanish one day, or perhaps as if she'll return from whatever errand she'd gone off to do.  They file a police report, of course, and Brock takes and passes a lie-detector test. When her friends ask Kat if she thinks her father knows more than he is letting on, Kat is quick to assure them that he couldn't have had anything to do with his wife's disappearance -- he just didn't care enough.
These two decades, my father had also stayed slim. His face had aged well. He looked younger than fifty ... but also as preserved and eternal as some frozen-faced saint painted on the wall of a chapel during the darkest Dark Age days. Pale. Uninquisitive. A painted saint gazing without judgment, or interest, at centuries of women passing by, bearing candles, or babies, or flowers in their black habits, lace veils, go-go boots, and girdles. My father was the kind of man, like one of those expressionless saints, who sees a woman -- naked, or roped in pearls, tied to a stake, or shedding tears of blood -- and thinks, I wonder what's for dinner.
But what I think is this: She was a housewife, his housewife. For twenty years she served his dinner at six o'clock. Afterward, she washed the dinner dishes in Palmolive, to keep her hands soft. One Christmas when he offered to buy her a dishwasher she insisted she would never use it, that washing her husband's dinner dishes by hand was one of the greatest pleasures a woman could have. And he had no idea she was being sarcastic.
Precocious Kat seduces the middle-aged detective who is handling her mother's case. Is it because she wants to learn how his investigation is coming along? Not at all. She's just bored after the teen-aged boy next-door broke off their relationship when Eve disappeared. When she goes off to college, Kat's new friends inevitably want to know what happened to her mother.
"Where is she?" Cindy asked.
"Who knows?" I said. "I don't."
"She has to be somewhere,"Cindy said.
"Does she?" I said, spilling wine on my flannel nightgown. "Maybe she doesn't. Maybe she's nowhere."I smiled. But Cindy looked serious, and sad.
This exchange reminds me of an article I read about the mother of the teen-ager who gunned down the staff and elementary school students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. She had convinced herself that dwelling in his perpetually darkened bedroom, changing his clothes many times each day, collecting an arsenal and insisting that particular foods be arranged in a certain way on his plate was normal behaviour for her son. A psychologist noted that when we're dealing with a mentally disturbed family member, we tend to just readjust our ideas of normality. What seems bizarre and alarming to most people simply became Nancy Lanza's "new normal".

White Bird in a Blizzard tells the story of Kat's "new normal". It's a potent reminder of how adept our minds can be when they want to maintain the semblance of normality, of how keen our vision can be in some regards and how utterly myopic in others. See the movie, and read the book -- they complement each other beautifully.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the book gives any clues as to the fate of the protagonist's mother. I wonder how her mother's disappearance would shape her views as to marriage, parenthood, relationships with men, and relationships with people from normal, intact families.


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