I have now read six books by Haven Kimmel, this summer. I have two to go. I don’t know why, but I saved the novels till last, and I am in the middle of the “loose trilogy” of her first three (of four) novels. The (very) loose trilogy is The Solace of Leaving Early, Something Rising (Light and Swift), and The Used World. I am reluctant to look up how exactly these three books hold together, at this point in my reading, because I am afraid I’ll find out too much. As it stands right now, the majority of the way through the second book I read a sentence and was startled into what is so far the only way I see the connection. I like surprises like that, so I won’t ruin it for you and I don’t want to ruin any further surprises for myself. But when I’m done with the trilogy I will look it up and see if there are things I’m missing. It seems likely. I’ll mark them with a spoiler alert in my next review.
And now I am going to deal with Something Rising (Light and Swift) as a stand-alone book, because it is, essentially, its own book. Something Rising is the story of Cassie Claiborne, a girl born and raised on the flat fields of rural Indiana. Her mother, Laura, was from New Orleans and had quickly veered off the trajectory of her life (about to marry a man of means and local notoriety) when she chanced to meet the gambler, Jimmy, and follow him (unbidden) back to Indiana. Jimmy then led a double life—the one he had been living before and the one Laura brought to him, while she spent the days and even nights staring out the window toward the (unseen) life she had destroyed in fashioning this new mess of one. But this is all about Cassie, about the genes she is given (a temper, practicality, gambling, talent in math and at the pool table) and about what else comes from her rocky childhood (secrecy, codependence, anger, abandonment issues). And while her friends and sister (and other supporting characters) deal with the Midwest cards they are given, Cassie tries to figure out how to carve a life for herself instead of being a reaction to someone else’s choices. Is it even possible?
Let me tell you: reading Kimmel’s novels right after reading her memoirs is illuminating. I mean, writers all write from their experiences and end up with themes, even if they don’t think they do or don’t want them. Kimmel’s past and themes are abundantly clear from reading her real life up against her fiction. The people from her past haunt her stories, including, most importantly, her mother and father. Haven is also in each story, clearly, and often divided into multiple characters (which is really normal for writers to do, on purpose or not). There’s always higher education and at least one character who is highly academic. There are family characters who do not function. Gambling. Drinking. Many questions about motherhood and fatherhood and, of course, the father who abandons the family. And all of these things come straight up out of Kimmel’s childhood and even her young adult years in academia. Rural Indiana as a place always plays a super important role, too, as well as small town personalities (which at least she gives tons of texture, having actually grown up there and affording the characters actual humanity instead of charicature).
Just like in the first novel (The Solace of Leaving Early) I did wonder if I was missing things because of the depth of some of the scholarliness. In The Solace of Leaving Early¸ I felt a masters (at least) in theology and philosophy (and also English) could have helped me understand what the heck the two main characters were talking about half the time, but with Something Rising¸ it was more subtle; I suspect there are layers of metaphor here related to Greek mythology and other classical mythologies and stories. I mean, not only is this part of the way the three women of the household relate to each other (even that! Is that trilogy important?), but the main character’s name is Cassiopeia. (In Solace, the main character is Langston, which is downright weird.) Surely…? It is possible that a deep approach to Kimmel would yield much, is what I am saying. Am I going to approach it this way? Not at this time, not yet.
The truth is I don’t have to understand all of the allusions in Something Rising in order to enjoy it. I loved this book. I always love Kimmel’s writing, and out of the six books of hers I have read so far, this one is my favorite. (They may continue to get better, actually. I think that Iodine, the fourth novel, had been my favorite when I read them a couple decades ago.) I love this: the language; the imagery; the characters; some of the insight. How to make this longer? Kimmel’s writing is beautiful, even breathtaking, always clear (though sometimes bogged down by high-level academic stuff), always transporting. Her use of carefully-chosen detail takes the reader right into each scene and then the way she develops the people in the scene really endears every single character, no matter how flawed or obnoxious. These people and places really breathe, and Kimmel has something to say about all of it. I don’t always agree with what she seems to be saying, as a narrator, but I can always appreciate the story as a story, the characters on their own terms, and the places as a sort of historical artifact, though fictional.
My issue with this book is essentially the only issue I had with Solace, which can be said “plot” or “pacing.” As literary fiction, there isn’t a real clear hero’s journey, and that’s okay. However, her character development and plot development are lopsided in the same way in Something Rising as in Solace. There is tremendous build-up (without, remember, a conventional (or as my friend would say it, modern, Western) plot. We don’t know what we’re asking or where we’re heading, exactly, we’re just getting to know the place and the characters and the circumstances) but then when it resolves, it does so entirely too quickly. Another way to say it: Kimmel is a bit of a tease with the more traditional elements of plot, especially romance. Last time I said that if she had added a few more scenes with the “romantic leads” along the way, the ending would have been much more satisfying. In Something Rising, sure, I would have loved more time and clues leading up to the two eventual romances, but my real complaint is in the sudden changes in Cassie, which I don’t feel are gradual enough. Pages before the end, she is still the same old Cassie in so many ways, enough that I, as a reader, want to challenge the changes that we do see. I don’t think Kimmel ushered us through the process of the change. The ending, again, is too abrupt, and since it’s literary fiction, we don’t get to hang out there much, if at all. Endings can only be implied in literary fiction, you can’t really look them straight in the face. Fine. But I have to believe what is cropping up obliquely and gradual change is key.
This might be the sort of thing you will feel if you read Something Rising (Light and Swift), so I am pre-empting your disappointment, but not to discourage you from reading it. Ultimately, I love Kimmel’s books and I really enjoyed Something Rising. If you do literary fiction, it’s a great book. I have yet to understand why Kimmel isn’t more well-known. As far as the genre goes, she is a bright light on the close-backwards horizon and I actually felt like I spent the last couple days in Indiana with Cassie, Puck, Emmy, Laura, etc, even though they aged more than ten years during the story. A recommended read.
“…I didn’t know that the heart can make grave mistakes and that who you end up married to is largely a matter of accident and then you’re stuck with it forever…” (p51).
“An infinite number of props are necessary to shore up a serene family life, that’s what Laura would have said, and once Emmy’s parents, Mike and Diana, had gathered those props, they didn’t change them” (p66).
“Laura saw no good end. ‘I would have cared for you if the situation were reversed,’ she wrote. ‘I would have seen you through to the end. But to bargain for my life at your expense is untenable’” (p159).
“When you were little, and I think this is true of almost every mother of young children, I was less afraid that one of you would die than that we wouldn’t all be together” (p161).
“I am tired of flossing, of hand lotion, of the food pyramid. Years before I knew I was ill I had already felt every single morning, rising from bed, that I had to get up and do something about my corpse” (p164).
“Then there had been no limit to how far she could ride, not because she was stronger but because she thought differently” (p175).