The Lace Reader, Brunonia Barry, William Morrow, 2008, 385 pp
The Lace Reader took me completely by surprise. The covers of both the hardcover and the paperback gave me the impression of some romantic, atmospheric story. The title had me expecting a quirky little tale about either elderly or New Age-type women sitting around drinking tea and predicting the future.
Aunt Eva is the only elderly lady and she is missing, so never actually appears as a character except in others' recollections. Towner Whitney is her troubled great-niece. By troubled I mean seriously mentally ill, on medication, seeing visions. As the story opens we learn that she suffers from a teenage trauma involving a twin. After twenty years of self-exile in southern California, Towner comes home to Salem, MA.
Salem, MA? Witches? Yep, witches, ancient and modern. Also Towner has a difficult relationship with her mother, an agoraphobic who lives on an island and rescues abused women.
All of this is revealed gradually by Towner herself. She is the unreliable narrator of all time but also funny in an ironic, Job-like way. After about 40 pages, I was drowning in quirkiness but had the feeling there was more going on if only the author would get to it.
Well. Turns out there was plenty more and much of it is mighty disturbing: abuse of both children and women, addiction, mental illness and more. Some of the Whitney women can indeed read the future in lace patterns but like most people who have "the sight" the future is mostly not pretty.
The Lace Reader can be hard to follow and the end is confounding, leaving the reader with as many questions as answers. However, it is a great read in the tradition of Daphne du Maurier. You are put into the upset mind of Towner and come close to feeling crazy yourself. I thought that was some canny writing and also realistic: she is not crazy all the time; it's intermittent. The brilliance of embedding a mystery in an unbalanced mind reminded me of Patricia Highsmith.
Oh so tastefully, without preaching or moralizing, Barry gives us the murky world of abused women. No easy answers but this one: abused women are best helped by women. Some readers get upset when animals get hurt in novels. For me that is nothing compared to abuse of females. By the end of The Lace Reader, I had been shamed into realizing that I had still harbored some idea that abused women basically ask for it. I will NEVER feel that way again.
This novel is powerful like the ocean on the cover and somehow also as gentle as the lace.
(The Lace Reader is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)