Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Charis in the World of Wonders, by Marly Youmans: A Review

I received a review copy of Charis in the World of Wonders, but my thoughts are all my own.



My Amazon review:
Gentle Charis, educated, red-haired, and the sole survivor of the massacre of her settlement, flees through the forests of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to rebuild her life in the more established towns near Boston. There she finds that the world holds other, subtler dangers than just the Mi'kmaq tribe and the French. Some Puritans are eager to see the judgment of God in the sufferings of others; some friendships end in grief. Sullen suspicions of witchcraft simmer around a girl who has escaped the dangers of the wild and who trusts that God seasons judgment with mercy.  
Charis has heard old German fairytales, and echoes of those stories resonate in her own as she takes a position sewing for a dour widow with two headstrong daughters, who suspect the few precious possessions that remind her of her mother's care. But she also finds that the death of her family cannot kill love, and that grace and beauty are constantly breaking through the dull surface of the world, not least through a silversmith with silver eyes and golden hair. 
Marly Youmans is a poet as well as a novelist, and her graceful prose sets Charis's terrors and joys in an authentic and sensitive historical voice. She weaves the strangely colorful language of the New England colonies into the story with a sure hand, and realizes the Puritans as a people of ecstatic vision of heaven as well as hell. (A glossary in the back of the book helps the reader over more obscure terms, though the reader may wish more for a map to trace Charis's wanderings.) The quiet lyricism and episodic pacing of the novel provides just enough distance from the sorrows of the story, as Charis wrestles with guilt and the trauma of her family's death, comforts an agonized new mother with no will to live, bears slander, and fears that once again she will have to flee from the world she knows into a wider world of wonders.
***

When I was asked if I would like a review copy of this novel, I was wary at first, because the promotional material I'd read was very vague and focused mostly on the poeticism (and other discerning readers have told me that they'd had the same hesitation). The novelist du jour of wonder is Marilynne Robinson, and terms of you can draw parallels between this novel and Robinson's Gilead in terms of realizing the wonder of the everyday world. However, I think I'd prefer a comparison with the novels of Ron Hansen, specifically Mariette in Ecstasy or Exiles. Ms. Youmans and Mr. Hansen share a deep commitment to moral questions not just pondered and wondered, but acted on even at the moment of mortal peril. Charis in the World of Wonders is a novel which demands real choices of the characters, in which wonder is not just a glistening opiate, but a sublime, dangerous glimpse of reality that demands a moral response.

Response, moral choice: these are key elements. I recently read The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos. This novel is classic Catholic literature, and it is very good, but large parts of it are characters laying out to one another their religious and political philosophies. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but the language of the pressing discourse and class concerns of 1936 France can seem quaintly distant to readers of 2020. Bernanos was, of course, writing a contemporary novel, not trying to make historical debates relevant to a future audience. (The spiritual grapplings of the main character could also grow a bit wearing for the reader, who realizes that the priest's spiritual agonies are more than a little influenced by his deteriorating health, and that a good rest in a sanatorium might be more spiritually beneficial to a clearly dying man than one more disquisition about the state of the French worker.)

But as I skimmed one multi-page monologue after another, I found myself yearning for the moments of choice -- the moments when the grand philosophies and the agonized doubts played out, and people had to act on their convictions. And those moments were gripping. Indeed, the last page of the novel, describing how the priest faced a painful lonely death, is worth the whole rest of the book. It is what he truly believes, lived.

And so with Charis. There are necessary interludes where characters must grapple with pressing questions: did God ordain the deaths of my family? Are my sufferings a judgment on me? Is survival a mark of grace or a sign of diabolical alliance? And then Charis must accept grace and extend it to others, the small internal struggles no less dramatically significant than the external adventures. The comparison to Cinderella is apt, I think: grace is not less costly for being quiet and outwardly insignificant.

But when we speak of novels, we are also speaking of literary merits, and it is often the downfall of religious novels that the best of moral intentions become heavy-handed and didactic without literary ability. (And ability is often underserved without the attentions of an editor attuned as much to style as consistency and editorial guidelines.) So I am very pleased to see any Catholic publisher bringing out a novel by an established author with a sure literary style, and who sticks the ending. As anyone who has read any quantity of religion-adjacent fiction can testify, these qualities are by no means assured, and the difficulty of finding excellent new fiction is compounded by the tendency of reviewers to give a pass to literary merits to members of the tribe.

Ms. Youmans, as mentioned above, is a poet, and I'm aware that I myself am inclined to a plainer style. There were, to me, moments when poeticism threatened to undermine the narration. A small example: a pregnant character says of her child that "He clenches together and opens up like a thread of metal coiled up and pressed and released." That is a lot of words to describe a spring. If such a concept did not exist in the late 17th century, it would be exceedingly odd to invent it in this way. (Wikipedia informs me that coiled springs do indeed date back to the 15th century.) But more to the point, it was an overly complex image that drew too much attention to itself.

Why nitpick in this way? Because I think this is an excellent novel with few flaws, and I want to you trust that I read it and am giving you an honest review. I'd like to commend Ignatius Press for bringing out an important novel that deserves a place with any of the literary fiction coming from the major publisher, in a handsome edition with original artistic motifs at the head of each chapter. If anything is going to rebuild readers' trust in the inbred Catholic fiction industry, it will be a fierce attention to literary as well as moral integrity.

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