Monday, April 06, 2009

The Ghost At The Table by Suzanne Berne

"From a mustard seed of truth spring the most egregious lies. And, of course, the most enduring stories." So says Cynthia, called Cynnie by her family, and she could have been talking about her own life and family or about what she does for a living. She is an author who writes historical fiction of a very particular sort; she writes about the sisters of famous women, and her target audience is adolescent girls. "Sisters Behind the Sisters of History" is the marketing tag for the books she and her best friend, Carita, write, and Cynnie has already written books about the sister of Helen Keller, Emily Dickenson, and Louisa May Alcott. Her new project is a book about Mark Twain's daughters.

However, the writing life of Cynnie is only a teaser in this novel, a tool for getting to the real story which is about three sisters, their long dead mother, and their avoided, sometimes detested father, who is about to enter a care facility. The older sister, Helen, has also died a few years earlier, leaving Francis and Cynthia to deal with their past and with their invalided father. Francis, a successful interior decorator who is married to an equally successful doctor, has persuaded Cynnie to leave her west coast sanctuary to come home to New England for Thanksgiving. What she has not told Cynthia is that they are committed to collecting their father from his present much younger wife, who says she can no longer deal with him, and to depositing him in a care facility.

What Berne shows us in this novel is that she is a master at describing the psychological tensions of family life and the peculiar ways in which memory deceives and occludes. Both sisters and their father think they are carrying within them a dark secret about the past, a secret too horrible to allow to surface, and each thinks she or he is protecting another by allowing things to remain as they are. During all the time that the girls were growing up, their mother was gravely ill, only now and then, during momentary respites, managing to leave her upstairs bedroom to enter the swirl of family activity below. Cynnie, the youngest of the three daughters feels bad for her mother and sometimes goes upstairs to read to her. Francis simply wants to forget that she has a mother at all, ashamed in some odd way to admit to her friends that she has such an unusual and un-motherly mother. Helen acts as surrogate mother to her younger sisters and provides some care to their ailing mother, but most of the household chores as well as the almost constant care required by their mother is provided by Mrs. Jordon, a paid servant.

What I found particularly clever about this book was Berne’s ability to present a novel about family life and sisterly competition as a kind of mystery, almost a thriller, which keeps the reader turning pages in order to uncover the secret. While, in fact, what she shows us is the tricks that memory plays on us and the ways in which a single event can be interpreted in wildly different ways, depending primarily on the hidden, guilty wishes of each family member. Yes, the husband would like to be relieved of the burden of a wife who is no longer a companion, the daughters would like to be able to guiltlessly leave home to embark on their own lives. And not only our memories of past events, but our very ‘seeing’ of those events as they occur, are indelibly colored by our secret wishes and guilts.

It is unclear whether the ghost at the table in this novel is the mother and the suspicious circumstances of her death, or the old man in the wheelchair, a mere shadow of the angry, strong father the girls recall with a mixture of fear and hatred. Finally, as the mystery at least partly unravels, there is a kind of reconciliation in this book, an understanding, at least on the part of Cynthia, that she has in many ways manufactured the past in order to justify her present and her rather solitary life of serial lovers. She has demonized her father and made up stories about her sisters, but in the end it has been her own needs rather than real events that has shaped her vision. If she does not entirely forgive her father, at least she begins to understand how she has distorted events in order to keep her hatred alive.
Whatever he had done for us, or not done, must have seemed justifiable to him at the time. My mother, too, had done what she could in the midst of her illness, by asking little of us, except that we not watch her too closely. They, like most people, had done their best. You love whom you love, you fail whom you fail, and almost always we fail the ones we meant to love. Not intentionally, that’s just how it happens. We get sick or distracted or frightened and don’t listen, or listen to the wrong things. Time passes, we lose track of our mistakes, neglect to make amends. And then, no matter how much we might like to try again, we’re done. Whatever inspiring song we hoped to sing for the world is over, sometimes to general regret, more frequently to small notice, and even, if we were old and sick, to relief.
This may not be a great book, but it is insightful. It teaches us a lot about family life, and it does so while telling an intriguing story. Suzanne Berne also does her best.

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