The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne was not actually my original choice for a review this week. The onset of rain had put me in the mood for a dark-and-stormy thriller, and I had one all lined up to write about. I will probably still write about it, as it had everything long nights and bad weather need. The onset of the holidays, though, once again trumped the end of the world as I found I couldn't get Berne's novel of Thanksgiving and family dysfunction out of my mind.
Cynthia Fiske likes her life. She's a writer, author of a series of books for young adults called Sisters of History, novels about famous people narrated by their sisters. She has a great apartment on Dolores Street in San Francisco and good friends, ones that make up the kind of adopted family that keeps us sane (or at least let us go crazy in a good way.) Currently she's working on a book about the daughters of Mark Twain, daughters she can identify with both because the Twain family lived near to where she grew up and because the dynamics of the two families are more than a little similar. Cynthia's mother died when she was young, and she has been estranged from her father and his new wife for years. She doesn't welcome the call from her sister, begging her to come back to Concord for a Thanksgiving family reunion.
Back east she does go, convinced by her sister that everything will be great, and the fact that she will be close to the Twain family home where she can research her next book. She knows as she goes that her father has been ill and will be moving into a nursing home over the holiday. At least, she thinks he will. Her sister hasn't been exactly straight with her about that, or about anything. The holiday becomes one to survive, to careen through from crisis to crisis. Distance has let relationships go dormant, suspended, unresolved. Presence requires the family to learn, or learn again, exactly who is at the table. Everyone has their own baggage, all opened and tossed out in the room to mingle and knot in a pile of aired dirty laundry.
Suzanne Berne is a tremendous writer. Orange Prize winner for an earlier book, A Crime in the Neighborhood, she easily rises to the task of immersing us in the frustration and emotion that threaten to overwhelm Cynthia as she navigates the holiday season. As more deceptions, half lies and forgotten truths emerge over the long weekend family allegiances change, shifting constantly until the moment the holiday is over, leaving everything changed and everything exactly the same.
No matter what kind of holiday you have, there is something in The Ghost at the Table that will remind you of yourself, your friends and your family. It gives us a holiday at once worse than our own and better, strange and familiar, surreal and utterly real. It's comforting somehow to immerse yourself in a family that feels true both despite and because of its flaws, and in it see the strength of family bonds.
Galley Slave Galley Watch
Finn by Jon Clinch is a powerful and unforgettable look at a man mentioned by Twain but never explained, Pap Finn, the father of Huck. Brutal, angry, smart and deeply flawed, Pap Finn squats in an abandoned shack on the Mississippi, harvesting the river for fish or flotsam to keep him in whisky, and maybe some food. Estranged from his family, his father and his son, he plots to get the riches he thinks he deserves, spiraling violently away from both in the process. I couldn't put it down and couldn't look away even if I'd wanted to. Brilliant, and due in early Spring from Random House.