Hid­den dan­gers lurk in a too-small world

Suf­fi­cient Grace

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Jo Case Jo Case

SUF­FI­CIENT Grace is the first novel from Amer­i­can-Aus­tralian writer Amy Espeseth. It won the Vic­to­rian Premier’s Lit­er­ary Award for an un­pub­lished man­u­script in 2008. The book fo­cuses on one ex­tended fam­ily, bound to­gether (and iso­lated) by their shared re­li­gion and their home, deep in Wis­con­sin farm­land and for­est.

The 13-year-old nar­ra­tor, Ruth, and her fam­ily live for their church (where al­most ev­ery­one is re­lated), their land and each other. This makes for a tight-knit community that bor­ders on claus­tro­pho­bic, es­pe­cially as Ruth and her cousins ad­vance to­wards adult­hood.

A pal­pa­ble sense of dread stalks this novel from its open­ing pages, which de­scribe a deer hunt (in­clud­ing the death of a fawn) in lov­ing de­tail. At first glance there is noth­ing note­wor­thy in this or the many other ex­am­ples of bru­tal­ity in na­ture. As Ruth re­flects: ‘‘ Peo­ple on the land live close to the be­gin­nings and ends of life. We are peo­ple that raise and hunt and butcher.’’

But cu­mu­la­tively the im­ages of hunted an­i­mals, de­voured young and blood on snow qui­etly con­jure an at­mos­phere of in­no­cence un­der threat and a pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence. While the first third of the novel un­folds fairly un­re­mark­ably on the sur­face, there is a con­stant sense that events are build­ing to an in­evitable storm. When it breaks, ev­ery­one in the fam­ily is drawn in — and im­pli­cated.

Ruth is a watcher: she hides in coat-racks, ri­fles through laun­dry bas­kets and lis­tens un­der kitchen tables. Along the way, she in­tu­its var­i­ous se­crets about her fam­ily, some more sig­nif­i­cant than oth­ers. This lurk­ing ten­dency (and her age) makes her an ideal nar­ra­tor: as Ruth reaches a deeper un­der­stand­ing of her fam­ily, and of her­self, we be­come in­ti­mately ac­quainted with them.

Espeseth avoids a com­mon pit­fall of nov­el­ists who em­ploy child-nar­ra­tors: im­bu­ing them with an un­likely so­phis­ti­ca­tion. Ruth sees much, but of­ten glimpses just a shadow of the mean­ing of what she wit­nesses. Much is left for the reader to in­tuit and in­ter­pret. Sus­pense builds as we (and Ruth) grad­u­ally piece to­gether what is hap­pen­ing be­neath the sur­face of the re­la­tion­ships around her.

Espeseth is a gor­geous writer; this book is dense with finely etched im­agery, much of it rooted in the nat­u­ral world. For in­stance, deer eat­ing from an over­laden ap­ple tree at night are ‘‘ like dark, silent ghosts sur­round­ing a weep­ing wil­low’’. This painterly prose starkly re­alises the wilder­ness set­ting — and the By Amy Espeseth Scribe, 336pp, $29.95 na­ture tableaus are cho­sen care­fully to mir­ror (and of­ten fore­shadow) the plot of the novel, at times ex­plic­itly de­scrib­ing sce­nar­ios only hinted at in the main nar­ra­tive.

In Suf­fi­cient Grace, the kind of na­ture writ­ing that can slow a story down moves it for­ward in­stead. Ev­ery scene is there for a rea­son. The only ex­cep­tion to this as­sured econ­omy is the novel’s end, when it seems to linger a chap­ter too long, soft­en­ing the im­pact of its cli­mac­tic scene and ty­ing up fi­nal threads that would have had more im­pact had they re­mained looser.

Reli­gious im­agery is in­te­gral, too. Re­li­gion gov­erns the char­ac­ters’ ev­ery­day lives and morals; it nour­ishes and re­stricts. But it’s also a so­cial con­struct, as demon­strated by the fam­ily ma­tri­arch’s blend­ing of stray be­liefs (in­clud­ing some bor­rowed from pass­ing Je­ho­vah’s Wit­nesses) with her dom­i­nant form of Chris­tian­ity — and by the par­al­lel, equally real, be­lief sys­tem of the town’s Na­tive Amer­i­cans.

Faith, on the other hand, is in­trin­si­cally con­nected to the nat­u­ral world. The moral uni­verse of this novel it­self seems di­vided, too, be­tween Old Tes­ta­ment-style retri­bu­tion and a more for­giv­ing, com­pro­mis­ing kind of peace with flawed hu­man­ity (when those flaws are tem­pered by a striv­ing to be good, and pun­ished by feel­ing the weight of se­ri­ous short­com­ings).

Ruth misses some ob­vi­ous, im­por­tant clues that hint at reve­la­tions she’d rather not know; how­ever, she per­ceives more than the rest of her fam­ily, who of­ten seem wil­fully blind. For ex­am­ple, Ruth’s grand­mother, sup­pos­edly gifted with a kind of God-given sec­ond sight, is per­cep­tive about her fam­ily’s flaws but oddly ig­no­rant of how they man­i­fest.

This idea, that even the most per­cep­tive of us don’t see what’s clos­est to us with any kind of clar­ity (some­times be­cause we can’t bear to), is cen­tral. The ques­tion lingers: what hap­pens when there is no one with the req­ui­site dis­tance to see clearly; when ev­ery­one is fam­ily? And which trans­gres­sions can — or should — be for­given?

Amer­i­can-Aus­tralian writer Amy Espeseth has set her first novel deep in ru­ral Wis­con­sin

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