Monday, July 05, 2004

Nina: Adolescence by Amy Hassinger

I want to depart a bit from my usual habit this morning in that I will briefly mention to you two excellent books, either or both of which I might review at a later time, and then talk to you about a third book that troubles me some. As I have said before, there are so many wonderful books out there that I would find it odd to discuss bad or even mediocre books. While it might give some reviewers pleasure to criticize and dissect books, especially popular ones that they find lacking, I prefer simply to recommend some of the many really good ones. Another more personal explanation for my departure from habit is my tendency at present to start too many books and then read them sequentially and sporadically in a kind of balancing act that I think does not really do justice to the books nor make for the best reading experience. The last that I picked up and have not quite finished is a recent book by Penelope Lively, who in my opinion is one of the very best living novelists, and one of a handful of greats from the last hundred years. The title of the book is The Photograph, and it is perfect for the busy city reader since it can be read in just a few sittings. Lively understands time in a scientific and philosophical sense as well as in terms of lived time. She plays with and wonders about time in all of her many, excellent novels, including her Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger, published in 1987. The Photograph, published just last year, seems to me to crystallize all of her many insights about the oddities and trickeries of lived time. A single photograph, discovered quite by accident as a professional landscape archeologist searches through some of his old documents, throws his entire history into disarray, and as his past is suddenly deconstructed, leaving him to reconstruct it, he manages to shake up the lives of many with whom he has shared history. What Lively calls into question is the very idea of an objective history, and certainly of memory as a reproductive faculty. Instead, as the philosopher Kant insisted and as Lively vividly demonstrates, memory is a creative, synthetic faculty only partially informed by what we think of as 'real' events. In a moment, perhaps from a single photograph, what seems to be indelible becomes plastic, kaleidoscopic. But this is enough of a hint for now. For those of you who are already Lively fans, this is a must read, and for those of you who have yet to discover her, this is a delicious and rather mischievous place to start.

The second book I want to mention and then hold in reserve for a future time is entitled Mating, and the author is Norman Rush. Unlike the short and quick to read Lively novel, this one is a major undertaking. The language is rich and almost laughable erudite; read it with a dictionary close to hand. Another wrinkle is that the lead character and narrator is a woman although the author is a man. Several of my friends suggested this novel as an excellent example of a successful attempt by a man to write from a woman's perspective. That contention I will leave to you readers to decide, although I may have something to say about it when I give a more detailed account. However, what I can say now is that the political content of this novel is complex and first-rate. Like several other books I have reviewed in the last year, this one is set in Africa and deals with questions of economic imperialism and the dire economic straits of third world countries. How could countries, long dominated and exploited by foreign market economies, wrest control from those who suck their lifeblood, consume their natural resources, and yet remain somehow viable economic entities in a world controlled by market forces? And furthermore, how could such a process even begin without centralized control and loss of individual liberties? This book is the best I have read since Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger on these incredibly complex economic and social questions, and it is quite a good love story as well. While it is a long and rather difficult read, it is well worth the effort, and deserves to be read in a sustained way rather than in snippets over months.

Finally I come to the subject of this month's review, Nina: Adolescence, a first novel by Amy Hassinger. I often choose first novels because they tend to be the best or among the best of any author's work, and they tend even more than most novels to be autobiographical. As I have said many times, I like to read novels about us-here-now. However, I hope this novel is not autobiographical. While it is very well written and quickly captivating, the content is, at the very best, disturbing. Of course, important books about real life are often, even usually, disturbing. But if I am going to be disturbed, I want to be disturbed for a reason. I want to be enlightened or warned or, at least, presented with important moral questions and dilemmas. Perhaps this is the author's intent with this novel, but I can't be sure.

I won't give away too much of the plot here, although what is disturbing about the novel is intimately tied with complexities of the plot. Enough for now to tell you that Nina, the adolescent who is at the center of the novel, is the thirteen, fourteen, fifteen year old daughter of a woman painter. Because of a tragedy that has occurred, the mother, Marian, has retreated to her bedroom and given up painting. Slowly, painstakingly, Nina lures her mother out of her bedroom and back to the studio, and in that process becomes her model for a series of nude paintings. As Nina had hoped, the work brings her mother back to life, both as artist and as a person in the world, and when the series of paintings is exhibited in a show dedicated to her work, Marian's career is resurrected. As one might guess, the father, Henry, is less than pleased that his teenaged daughter is the nude center of attention in these paintings. Even if the paintings are fine art, they can become pornography in the hands and eyes of a pedophile. And, sure enough, one of her mother's ex-lovers, Leo, does make a move on Nina. Under the pretense of simply befriending her, and then of taking photographs of her, he first kisses and pets her, and eventually lures her to his apartment. Nina is in that crease between girlhood and womanhood, but decidedly on the side of girlhood. Inexperienced with boys her own age and with dating of any kind, she is both flattered and repelled by the attentions of this handsome man in his thirties, and to complicate matters even further, Leo is in a position to help along the career of Marian by publishing a piece on her as an artist.

Why is this man so fascinated by this obviously young and inexperienced girl? And given his past experiences with Marian, the mother, what sort of twist is added to the mix? And even further, why is this story of seduction and use an important one to tell? In some ways, that the story is told so well simply compounds the questions. Elizabeth McCracken, an excellent novelist and one who seems to understand exploitation and abuse, says that this novel is “elegant, sad, often funny.....excellent.” Certainly it is convincingly told, and elegant in its simplicity and sparse language, but I as a reader waited for the moral message. While I do not expect justice and think of myself as a reader who understands the cruelty of the real world, I expect writers who dare to take as subject matter the horrible fascination (at least in this culture) of grown men for little girls to make it clear just how awful this fascination is and how devastating it can be for the victims. Perhaps the message is really there, and just too subtle for me to have picked up. Perhaps this is really autobiographical, and the voice of Nina is the voice of the artist who is struggling with her own past in writing this account, needing finally to voice her anguish and to sound a warning. If you happen to read this book and discover that it is I as reader who has failed to understand, I hope you will let me know. Or maybe, just maybe, like a piece of fine erotic art, this book is just so superbly fashioned that the disturbing elements are mitigated, even exculpated by the art itself. I can imagine that some of the paintings described are truly beautiful, and perhaps the beauty of the book comes first, the clear and articulate voice of Nina. For me, I simply became more and more disturbed, feeling not quite right even when I found the book interesting and beautiful.

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