January 2004

Christian Walters

fiction

Theatre of the Stars by N. M. Kelby

This isn't the book I was expecting. Even after reading the dust jacket and the first chapter, I was ready for something like Contact. My own fault, really. But the lead characters are women interested in astronomy. (The tie to the stars isn't quite as brazen as in Carl Sagan's book. As I'm likely the only person who thought it might be, that shouldn't ruin it for anyone.)

At the plot's core, this is a mystery. Lucienne Kundera is trying to uncover the truth of her mother's past, including her father's identity. A Cliff's Notes version would be maybe four pages long.

But the meat is the atmosphere N. M. Kelby creates on the way. We experience intercultural frictions and human tendencies towards both love and treachery. We get a full dose of loss and regret at being estranged from a parent or loved one, whether it's because you're consumed by work or by secrets. We explore the differences between being "in the moment" and having 20/20 hindsight. All that a hefty job in a book this short.

The first surprise from this book was how the text read almost as if the narrator was out of breath. At first it sounded odd, but it lends a kind of urgency to the prose. It's deceptive because there are very few "action" sequences, but the reader is encouraged to move right along.

...Lucienne began to look forward to the Sunday visits and to holiday dinners, with watered-down cocktails and an opulent table filled with food that's old-fashioned and deadly. Sweetbreads in cognac. Foie gras baked in brioche. A saddle of hare to "jump start" the new year. And champagne. Always champagne.

As her mom, Hélène, lies dying, Lucienne launches into her investigation. The timeline shifts quickly from the present to Hélène's past in a subtle symmetry or mirror image. (Much of Hélène's life was tied to World War II, the Manhattan Project, and the preparation for bombing Hiroshima. More than 50 years later, the attacks and recoil of 9/11 struggle to distract Lucienne from her mother's death.) Along the way, we encounter figured from Hélène's life, both in her past and Lucienne's present.

In the end, we're left with more of a spiritual fable about how we're all intertwined in each other's lives. No matter how much we try to be alone, we're connected in a very real sense to our present, each other's past, and to the universe itself. Despite the sometimes gloomy tone in the book, it's a cheery concept. One that Carl Sagan would have enjoyed, coincidentally.

This one would benefit from repeated readings. We would also benefit from keeping our eyes open for N. M. Kelby books.

Theatre of the Stars by N. M. Kelby
Hyperion Press
ISBN: 0786868589
274 Pages