Sunday, July 12, 2009

99 (2009 #24). The Lace Reader

by Brunonia Barry
performed by Alyssa Bresnahan

This was an interesting book. Set in Salem, Massachusetts, it’s the story of Towner (aka Sophya) Whitney, who has returned to her hometown when her great aunt Eva goes missing. Towner narrates part of the book, and her fourth and fifth sentences are “Never believe me. I lie all the time.” Towner has been in a mental institution and admits (on page 52) to having lost some of both short-term and long-term memory due to shock therapy. All these should be clues about the book’s ending, but they’re easy to miss.

Excerpts of a so-called “Lace Reader’s Guide” by Eva introduce the chapters narrated by Towner. The art of reading lace to tell fortunes is completely made up by author Brunonia Barry, but apparently the present-day witches in Salem have taken up the practice!

Speaking of witches, I LOVED the character of Ann Chase, a phrenologist and head of the local witches. Towner says, “Death isn’t the same for the witches, Eva told me once; she said it was because they don’t attach the prospect of eternal damnation to it.” Ann comes to the rescue of my other favorite character, local cop John Rafferty (part of the story is told from his third person limited viewpoint – oh, and he falls in love with Towner and she with him). Rafferty is confronting the local evangelical group, the “Calvinists” (more on them in a bit), and Ann scares them off simply by chanting a line from Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin! She later asks, “what kind of weak, lily-livered god are they worshiping if they’re afraid of a few witches?”

Indeed. The "Calvinists" are so named because of their leader, Calvin “Cal” Boynton, probably the most evil antagonist (suspected in Eva’s death and in the disappearance of one of his young female followers he impregnated) I’ve run across in fiction in some time. Formerly a yacht racer, a drunk, and married to Towner’s Aunt Emma, he beats the latter so badly she winds up blind and brain-damaged. After the assault he steals a boat, runs it aground, and is not found until 48 hours later, claiming to have seen God and been redeemed, and shortly afterward starts his “church.” Barry’s description of these zealots through the thoughts of Rafferty, “with all his lapsed-Catholic guilt,” could be applied to a lot of so-called fundamentalists:
In this moment he understood the draw of redemption. He understood why people wanted to be born again. Accept Jesus and you get a free ticket to heaven. No matter what you did in the past or would do in the future. When you were saved, you were saved. No penance. No Hail Marys, no moral inventories, no ninth-step amends. The Calvinists preached fire and brimstone, but only to the unsaved: the Catholics, the Jews, the Wiccans. The insiders were protected. A few indulgences and some tithing bought you an insurance policy. Who the hell wouldn’t want to join a religion like that?” (page 152)

Barry is a resident of Salem (her descriptions are wonderful) and this was her first novel. It has an interesting history, originally self-published and promoted through book clubs. Experienced narrator Alyssa Bresnahan’s reading is choppy, but then so is the text, and she does a good job expressing Towner’s conflicting emotions. At times confounding, with a somewhat surprising ending, this book is one I’ll re-read to look for more clues in the mystery.

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