Sunday, March 15, 2009

Donohue's second novel blurs line between dreams, fantasy and reality

Here's my review of Keith Donohue's second novel, "Angels of Destruction." Donohue will read from the novel at 7 p.m., Friday, at Prairie Lights Books in downtown Iowa City.

When a nine-year-old girl wearing threadbare clothes knocks one bitter winter night on the door of Margaret Quinn, readers of Keith Donohue’s second novel are left to wonder what kind of unexpected visitor this will be. Perhaps she will be something like Mrs. Whatsit in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” a disguised angelic character who leads the young heroes into a physics-inspired fantasy battle against ultimate evil. Or — considering the novel is titled, “Angels of Destruction” — perhaps this thin waif will turn into something more along the lines of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in the novel of the same name, a murdered infant who returns to home to haunt the mother who killed her rather than have her taken back into slavery.

By the end of Donohue’s first chapter, however, it’s pretty clear that the girl — wearing a note that says only N-O-R, which Margaret assumes is a failed attempt to spell, “Norah” — is going to be something between those two preternatural extremes. We learn that Margaret feels instantly maternal toward the freezing girl, giving her buttered saltines because there is no longer any other kids’ food in the house. We learn there is an old soul in this young body when the orphaned girl speaks her first words, “‘I was frozen,’ she answered in a phlegmy voice. ‘Cold as the point of an icicle.’” And we learn that Margaret’s own daughter has been gone 10 years and has disappeared in such a way that her room has been left empty and all but untouched.

Given the instant camaraderie between the abandoned mother and the strange girl old enough to be her granddaughter, it’s no surprise when Margaret decides to pass off the girl as the granddaughter she never had. Nor is it a surprise when an equally mysterious man in a fedora starts asking questions about the Quinn widow and her prodigal daughter, Erica, who had run off in 1975 — a decade earlier than the novel’s present — with her radical boyfriend who wanted to join the holdover revolutionary group Angels of Destruction. Nor is it a surprise when Norah’s presence begins to transform the lives of her new family and classmates — simultaneously reopening and healing old wounds.

But the surprise comes in how well Donohue has crafted this novel to help push his readers through the 10 years between when Erica left and Norah arrived. Breaking the novel into four sections — Book I, set in 1985; Book II, in 1975; Book III, in 1985; and a short epilogue set in 2005 — Donohue doesn’t provide the details of the Erica’s decision to runaway until long after both the characters and the readers have accepted Norah as part of this fractured family. His narrator never provides inaccurate information, but the narrator can’t be relied upon to help readers sort through the fine line between memory, fantasy and reality.

And Donohue is right to leave that line blurry. We don’t want a lengthy explication of the degree to which the phrase Angels of Destruction refers to the fictional stand-in for Hell’s Angels and the Symbionese Liberation Army and the degree to which it refers to Norah and the dark stranger asking so many questions about her. Nor do we want a deus ex machina to magically fix a decade’s worth of family turmoil and two generations’ worth of cultural conflict.

We want what Donohue gives us: A compelling story about complicated characters who eventually leave us at peace about the questions left unanswered.

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