Saturday, September 28, 2013

We Are Water by Wally Lamb, a touching novel that will leave few unmoved, November, Harper Collins

Wally Lamb is according to his publisher, "The #1 New York Times bestselling master whose works have touched millions." I did not read "She's Come Undone" or any of his others. WE ARE WATER (November, Harper Collins) is my first encounter with Lamb's work. The novel kept reminding me of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." In that classic, the story was also told in alternating chapters so you get a range of  perspectives. There are also psychological mysteries--awful secrets--at the heart of that book, which propel family members to their fate. Both authors have lyrical writing styles. Though Lamb hasn't the cadences of the south, he has the same poetry of nature with man and against him.

Lamb's water metaphors, throughout WE ARE WATER, begin with an unpredictable flood, which parallels the all encompassing doom in "As I Lay Dying." Both books draw you into their emotional vortex. But while Faulkner can be painful to read, Lamb's novel is pleasurable. Incredible compassion for his characters softens their suffering for us and his voice has a gentle redemptive beauty. Redemption also figures in the Faulkner novel, though its haunted with despair, bone dry and unrelenting. But when redemption finally arrives, there's a purity to that classic that's incomparable.

Sin and redemption are subliminal themes in WE ARE WATER. On the surface, it's about the problems of the Oh family, a not completely atypical 21st century American family. Father Orion, a psychologist, is of Italian and Chinese descent. His wife, Annie, is Irish, and their children have the Irish temper, the Italian soulfulness, and the hidden pain of both parents. Submerged are Orion's rejection by his Chinese father and Annie's rage from a lifetime of secrets, which erupts in cataclysmic art. It's Annie, who sets the plot in motion when she decides to marry her lover, Viveca, the art dealer who made her career. Their impending gay wedding churns up emotion that can no longer be contained. The security of home and family that anchored all is agitated in the finale of the 27 year marriage. The adult children; Ariane, whose life was dictated by a strong social conscience, Andrew, a born again Christian in the military, and Marissa, the beauty, hanging onto the reef of her acting career, are fragile flotsam swamped by the parental tidal wave.

The family's crisis and search for understanding is framed within a historical mystery that involves their town in the 1960's and the shack in back of their comfortable rock-hewn Connecticut home. The mystery of the shack concerns what happened to two African American brothers, one also an outsider artist, and possible retribution. This past, and its connection to the Oh family home, sharply intersects with the future of the family in the conclusion of this novel.

In WE ARE WATER the "sins" of the parents are responsible for the problems of the children. But we also come to understand the roots of the parents' suffering. Like a modern morality play, blame is shared and shouldered as the characters are forced to redefine themselves. I like how water also becomes a metaphor for the plight of human beings--the disasters, natural and human, that we cannot control.  The novel shows how our "life" evolves from how we live it; whether consciously or not. Nemesis rarely happens in real life as simple cause and effect, why this novel rings true. The characters have free will but there is also destiny. When the two intersect, the new path is life's mystery. This is the sense of wonder in WE ARE WATER.

Lamb has enormous feeling for his flawed people and their courage, especially Orion whose life's mission is to make sense of it. The novel is far less compassionate about true evil, when it surfaces in the guise of a Klansman and a pedophile. The understanding is still there but harsher on the characters' weaknesses. I am unsure if that's a fault. It is consistent with the morality play aspect of the novel.

My problem with WE ARE WATER is that I felt the historical frame didn't mesh with the family drama. While I was drawn into the emotions of fully realized dimensional characters, the link to the historical story was elusive. It bobbed around but seemed unclear. This is a small flaw in the success of WE ARE WATER. It's a touching novel that will leave few unmoved and probably earn Lamb more followers.