October 2011

Kristin Thiel


Carry Yourself Back to Me by Deborah Reed

Weather-wise, my everyday reading coordinates are currently teetering between summer and autumn: yesterday was sunny and in the 80s; this morning is wholly fall, crisp with the smell of rain in the breeze. It's the perfect time for taking action with any book -- curling up with, settling in to, spilling coffee on -- but of course something warm, a bit mysterious, and pleasantly heavier is particularly nice these days. A couple of autumns ago, I read Tana French's first book, In the Woods, and Diana Abu-Jaber's first turn with literary mystery, Origin. Newcomer Deborah Reed's Carry Yourself Back to Me fits such a bill this year. 

As with French's and Abu-Jaber's books, Reed's is a character-driven family drama spiced with sad, even dark, secrets, the telling and resolution of which require long soaks in flashbacks; redemption; lingering and present-day mysteries. Some of these tensions -- what is causing the scary changes in a father's behavior? how will early frost and hailstorms affect crucial travel and work? -- resolve in smaller arcs throughout the book; the mystery that incorporates all of novel's conflict crashes open in the book's satisfying conclusion. 

Reed's third-person narration moves with a contained freedom -- that is, changes in perspective happen only at chapter breaks, but they don't cycle through characters in a regular pattern -- among, mostly, three main characters. Annie Walsh is newly forty, with a recent past as a popular singer-songwriter (a la "Patsy Cline, Lucinda Williams and Aimee Mann, all spun into one"). Broken by lies by her brother and her ex, she is now trying to hide away with her elderly dog in her central-Florida country home. Annie's brother, Calder, is just one year her junior, that slight but still meaningful age difference leading Annie to be both fiercely protective of Calder -- he's her peer, her friend, as well as her baby brother -- and sharply wounded when he betrays her. The third main perspective is that of Owen, Annie's ex-partner, personally -- they lived together for five years -- and professionally, as he produced her breakout album. 

Annie's perspective comprises the bulk of the book; on the other end of the spectrum, Uncle Calder, the brother of the Walsh siblings' father, is a character more minor in scope but important to plot, so even his vantage gets a short section. An editor might have been tempted to encourage the author to try to lessen the number of storytellers, but Reed makes it work. 

The weather -- though of Florida, it is still wintery -- becomes a villainous character in Reed's hand: hailstones "skipped off the ground like pearls on concrete"; after spending the night outside in a car without heat, Owen's "dry lips pull apart when he coughs"; and when he steps outside and into a freak snowstorm, "flakes fall onto his face and burn like pieces of white ash." 

Words describing the younger Calder make him as clear to a reader as would film. The chapter flashing back to a pivotal and violent scene between twelve- and eleven-year-old Annie and Calder and two brother bullies vividly captures Calder's extreme tics, which are the impetus for the childhood bullying (but are mostly controlled in adulthood with cognitive techniques and a prescription for Haldol). As the Walsh siblings prepare to fight the Pinckney brothers, Annie's "own muscles tensed as if willing [Calder's] to do the same. But his eyebrows jumped and his mouth -- rimmed in Tropical Punch -- flicked sideways. He slapped the sweat from his forehead as if the sweat was the cause of all that was wrong with him." Calder's jumbled thoughts horrifyingly ramble from his mouth while "his legs did a jig on their own" and "he twisted his neck out and cleared his throat raw." 

Reed does not talk much about Annie's music-star past, which is deft. Others might have taken the easy opportunity for metaphor, but Reed listens to Annie's wishes to consider a different life. Her descriptions look at the opposites of music: Annie's hands are still worn, but they're no longer bitten by guitar strings -- rather, from helping her neighbor harvest the neighbor's tangelo crop. She still listens to the radio but instead of music, she finds she enjoys an end-of-the-dial station that plays serials starring "characters who do things that don't always make sense." 

The author's transitions from present-day to the past are not as seamless. In a device more common to TV shows than to real life, Annie seeing or touching something sets off a wavering fade into the past. She picks up a lantern, which makes her think of fireflies, which reminds her of an evening conversation she had six months ago with her neighbor, a rather clunky trail to follow. In another scene, Annie slips into a robe that Owen gave her two years ago and remembers in detailed chronological order the events of the day he left her six months before. There's a brief break to remind the reader that in the present the fireplace fire is dying and Annie is weary with emotion and physical exertion, and then the past returns in detail because "the memory of what happened next that day tugs at her." 

That's a minor quibble in a book highly recommended overall. One of the images Reed uses repeatedly and to good effect is that of things being scrubbed clean, refreshed, renewed with a clean(er) slate. And a version of that is what the reader feels upon finishing this book: the mind is filled, yes, but expanded. Reed nudges outward the mind's corners, broadening the space to fit a new good story. 

Carry Yourself Back to Me by Deborah Reed
ISBN: 978-1935597674
316 pages