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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Friday, September 19, 2003

A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton. New York: Doubleday, 1994. ISBN: 0385473109.

This book is a paradox. On the one hand it is composed of beautifully written prose that often reads like poetry. Individual lines are hand-crafted faceted gems that reward the reader at every turn. On the other hand, the subject matter and events that unfold are so unrelievedly depressing that just reading the book is to risk falling into a severe gloom yourself.

First, the narrator, a young mother named Alice, in a moment of inattention, allows her neighbor's young daughter to fall into the pond and drown. She is understandably overwhelmed by incredible feelings of guilt, but we are literally forced to wallow in these feelings with her for seven entire chapters, practically to the point of a nervous breakdown.

Somewhere in this part, I just couldn't continue reading, and put the book down. I wasn't able to make myself pick it up again for several months. The thought of it was just too depressing. The only way I was able to get myself to finish it was to make it my exercise bicycle book, where I'll literally read anything to keep my mind off the physical exertion.

As if that initial tragedy were not enough, Alice is wrongly accused of sexually molesting several children at the elementary school where she serves as school nurse, and is thrown into jail, with an impossibly high bond. Her husband Howard then takes over as narrator of the story, as he struggles with the rounds of daily life, taking care of his two young daughters by himself.

Finally, after she gets out of jail on bond, Alice resumes the story, telling us about her time inside. Then there is the actual trial. These parts of the book are more readable, since there is a narrative of events, rather than merely living inside the brain of someone who is paralyzed by guilt and grief. In the end, there is a kind of reconciliation, picking up the pieces, and the beginnings of a new life. But is the relatively insignificant ending worth all the travail it took to get there? I'm not convinced. This book grabs you, wrenches you, wrings you out, and then just dumps you. Not a pleasant experience and not one that I'd willingly subject myself to again.

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