Andrew Nicoll: BOOK REVIEW
Forgive the Moon, by Maryanne Stahl. New American Library. $12.95
In recent years Maryanne Stahl has built up an enviable reputation as the
author of carefully layered short stories and brilliant, lucid flash
fiction. With Forgive the Moon she proves that she can sustain that gift
for the duration of a fulll length novel.
Forgive The Moon tells the story of a family healing itself during a week-long beach holiday in the aftermath of their mother's death. So far, so To the Lighthouse.
But the common thread of all Maryanne Stahl's stories is their mille feuille character. There are always layers behind layers and themes that interweave and support each other. In Forgive the Moon that is literally, physically true.
The story of Amanda Kincaid's beach holiday with her family is interleaved, chapter by chapter, with a memoir of her mother's descent into madness. Schizophrenia begins to overshadow the lives of the young Amanda and her siblings. The voices they cannot hear eventually shout so loud that they almost drown out the ordinary love and comfort of family life.
Somehow, more or less damaged, they survive but, well into adulthood - right up until the moment of her surprisingly quotidian death - Amanda and her family are still desperately searching for the mother lost to them through madness.
There is a cruel fascination in those chapters of the book. The atmosphere of bafflement and loss and suffering and embarrassment is so clearly drawn that to read of it becomes almost a painful intrusion. And the memories have scarred Amanda:"I recalled the portent of illness that had sounded in my mother's voice when she would begin one of her bad periods, the distracted way she spoke. Even a hello, on the phone long distance, often had been enough to alert me. Something about the thickness of the edge of her words, the timing of her pause as she dragged on a cigarette. Did my mouth move that funny way my mother's had? Did I tap my fingers distractedly? Did I pace the rooms of my house like a caged cat?''
It's painful, but it's necessary. It says so much and it helps make sense of the other, interleaved half of the book where Amanda and her family meet again on a Long Island beach.
Arriving at the shore, Amanda brings with her the loss of her mother, separation from the daughter she worships - now flown to college - desperate mother-love for her growing son, the crashing debris of a marriage in mid-life crisis and the frightening possibility that a last, sad coupling with her husband may have left her pregnant.
But there's more to add to the mix. Handsome, available musician-doctor-jeweller-biker Michael Burns lives in a wonderful old house close to Amanda's resort. Their relationship brings her a new clarity of thought, the chance to reassess the most important things in her life, reawakens her forgotten skills as a musician and, above all, reopens the possibility of love.
And it's on the beach, armed with that new knowledge of what she can still be, that Amanda shakes off the shadows of encroaching old age and abandonment:"exactly what I feared the most" finding the strength to make another grab at life.
The key to the story is the resort owner, Athena, a super-annuated hippy with a feral son who fits the exact definition of a catalyst; she is needed, but not used up. Athena has long ago shed responsibility and she paves the way for Amanda to do the same - at least in the sense of pardoning herself of blame. And her generosity gives Amanda the space she needs to find a new direction.
Forgive the Moon is a story about changes. Changes in a woman's life, changes in a marriage, changes in the dynamic of a family. It's about love and coping with loss, permanent and temporary. It's about forgiveness and acceptance, the realisation that we are not perfect, that it's forgiveable not to be perfect and foolish to expect that anybody ever can be - even fathers. It's about growing up, no matter how long that takes.
But some things,like family, stay the same no matter how much they change - like the moon or the tides on the beach - inconstant but reliable. Amanda Kincaid discovers that. All that's required is the courage to dive in, as Amanda does."I paddled past the breakers, aiming for the gentle swell. Luminous creatures -jellyfish?- undulated beneath the surface of the water, lit like lanterns. I steered away from them and, when the current took them off, I allowed myself a brief tingle of fear for what other, more dangerous creatures might lurk nearby. Then I swam on.
"I stopped when I sensed I had gone far enough, and my toes just reached the smooth bottom. I stood beneath the rising moon in water up to my neck - solitary, individual and fragile, but no longer afraid to be alone.''
Maryanne Stahl has taken a risk with this book. Like the best authors, she risks exposing something of herself because, as she admits, there is a history of mental illness in her own family and the pain of Amanda's experience is too real to be wholly invented.
She also risks a fatal pigeon-holing as "a woman's writer.'' Undoubtedly the themes of Forgive the Moon are the sort of thing usually reserved for "women's" fiction but only if men care nothing for love and family and experience and realisation, only if men care nothing for their children or their parents. Forgive the Moon is not for women, it's for people who have loved.