Hidden dangers lurk in a too-small world
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 It won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2008.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