Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Things Invisible to See by Nancy Willard

Ben and Willie Harkissian are twin brothers (think Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau) growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the eve of World War II. A baseball launched into the October sky sets in motion a series of events that transforms many lives. Ben leaves for the front and faces death—figuratively as well as literally. Left behind is Clare Bishop, who has been paralyzed from the waist down. But in exchange she receives some very special gifts. She can see the future, be at one with animals, and chat with Death. Willie Harkissian remains in Michigan as well, though his relationship with his brother will never be the same.

A love story interrupted by war, this is also a novel about discovering the ordinary in the extraordinary and finding the miraculous in everyday life.
Goodreads description

Sometimes when I receive a review copy from a publisher, I start reading with enthusiasm and after a while my heart sinks at the thought of writing a review..And sometimes the book is an absolute joy and makes reviewing those other books worthwhile. This is such a book and I will be recommending it to friends and family. 

This is magic realism at its best. A deceptively simple fable that works on all sorts of levels, it is a love story and a metaphysical novel. Nancy Willard is a wonderful craftswoman, weaving references into the story without allowing them to overwhelm the tale.

Willard is a poet and it shows.,She writes some beautiful prose, which is nevertheless simple and unflowery. Sometimes I think poets are particularly in tune with magic realism - understanding metaphor and the concept of "things invisible to see". The title is, by the way, a quote from John Donne's poem Go and Catch a Falling Star.

On one level you have the well-drawn world of a small American town in the late 1930s and the two families at the centre of the story and on another you have the universal. The book opens: In Paradise, on the banks of the River of Time, the Lord of the Universe is playing ball with His archangels. Then it moves to the smallest of human worlds: In the damp night of the womb, when millions of chromosomes are gearing up for the game of life, the soul of Willie says to the soul of Ben, 'Listen, you can be firstborn and get out of this cave first if you'll give me everything else. Brains, charm, and good looks.'  The story then moves into the material world of the boys' parents: Their mother worked at the front desk of Goldberg's Cleaners and Tailors.

Despite this movement between worlds, the story arc works so well that I found it impossible to put the book down, finishing it in the early hours of the morning. I was genuinely interested in the love story between Ben and Clare, whether Ben will survive the Second World War and whether Clare would overcome her paralysis. For this book is about life and death as a game, but a very serious one. It culminates in a scene in which elderly mothers are playing baseball for the lives of their sons against a team chosen by Death. The referee is a childhood friend of Ben's who has already died in the War. I will not tell you the game's outcome.  

One of the things I loved about this book was that Nancy Willard does not hold back in presenting the world as she sees it. There is no writer's irony to hide behind, no fancy tricks, and some people will not like the book as a result. I loved it.

I am very grateful for the publishers Open Road Media for giving me my copy in return for a fair review. 

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