Magazine article The New Yorker

Big River; Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

Big River; Books

Article excerpt

Where do the dead go? Prudence Winship, the heroine of Emily Barton's beautiful second novel, "Brookland" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25), decided around the age of six that she had the answer. The year was 1778. Prue lived in Brooklyn, where her father owned a gin distillery. She was an only child, and dark-minded. But in those days, as she tells us, looking back on her youth, you didn't have to have a morbid cast of mind to think about death. For years, British soldiers, affable boys, had been camped in Brooklyn; they vanished daily. Fevers swept through the village, taking mothers, children. "It seemed," Prue says, "I saw the dead as often as I saw the living . . . their hands slack, their skin oaty as dishwater." The young Prue's recreation is to sit on the bluff below her father's distillery and think about this. She looks at the big East River and at the island on the other side, Manhattan. And slowly it dawns on her. The inhabitants of that island are crowded; unlike Brooklynites, they live stacked up in three- and four-story buildings. Every day, barges leave Brooklyn to bring them food and drink. These people have insatiable hungers, as Prue has heard is the case with the damned. So that's the answer. When you die, you go to Manhattan.

Soon after this epiphany, Prue's mother becomes pregnant, and Prue, who wants no rivals, begs God to kill the child. The baby is born, but with a defect in her vocal cords. "She could emit no sound but a rasping sigh, such as a person makes choking on a fishbone"a condition that Prue is sure she caused by her curse. She suffers for it, in any case. Pearl, as the new daughter is called, can never be left alone, because if she were in danger she could not cry out, so Prue is assigned to shadow her every step. She comes to love this tiny, intelligent, black-eyed sister, but, in some corner of her mind, she also hates her, because Pearl's handicap reminds her of the evil in her own heart. Pearl, she writes, "showed stealth in hunting down the eggs of the fractious hen who laid outside her box, and was of great assistance in chasing the motley-patterned, six-toed kittens who roamed our yard; but I could not have explained to her how when I caught them, I was entranced by the way their hearts beat fast within their delicate ribs, or how I wished I could cut one open, to lay bare the clockwork within." The world is nice and normalchickens and eggsbut it also has six-toed kittens that Prue would happily cut open. Pearl, too, is a six-toed kitten whom Prue has wished to harm. Therefore, she watches over her, night and day, with anxious care.

This knot of mixed feelings between Prue and Pearl is the emotional center of the novel, and the mechanism that sets off its hair-raising dnouement, but in "Brookland" everything is mixed. Pearl is not just a dear little damaged creature. She is also an eerie character, like Hester Prynne's Pearl, after whom I assume Barton named her. As the adult Prue sits over her paperwork at night, Pearl, in her rocking chaircreak, creakdoes her needlework, which is about the only occupation her family will allow her. The piece she is working on is a Piet for the local Catholic church, "with a sad, green-faced Virgin bending over her even sadder gray son." Prue, at her worktable, is living in what she thinks is the real world. Pearl, unnoticed, at her back, is weaving a different story.

To match the sisters' feelings, the book's narrative strategies are divided. Sometimes the speaker is an omniscient narrator; elsewhere, it is Prue, in 1822aged fiftywriting to her daughter. The omniscient narrator uses a slightly old-fashioned English and sticks to the story. Prue's language is more archaic (people wear "cloaths," discuss "topicks") and also more leisurely, expansive, in the nineteenth-century epistolary manner. Correspondingly, we get two different angles on reality. At times, the book is like a scientific treatise. When Prue is taken into the family business, we learn so much about gin distilling thatas with glove-making in Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" or auto assembly in Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex"we feel we could go out and do it ourselves. …

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