When we first meet Adam in Suzanne Berne’s novel The Blue Window, we only know that something terrible has happened to him, something so humiliating and shameful that he can’t think about it. He’s been home from his freshman year of college, not so much tending to his bruised ego as trying to erase it, a project that involves thinking of himself not as Adam but as A, which conveniently also stands for Anonymous. Or Absent.
It is: “End of day 18 in the year 2019 of the battle against the self, beset on all sides by demoralizing reminders of family attachment.” His mother, for example. If she asks him, “’What have you been doing all day?’ Someone might say, “Naps have occurred” or “Videos have been watched.” Her effort is as funny as it is heartwarming: “Self-effacing required constant whipping, hence yesterday’s decision to go vegan.”
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Adam’s mother, Lorna (aka X), a therapist, is overheard talking to his distant father, Roger (Y, of course), on speakerphone about his mother, Marika (G), who sprained her ankle. Have you consulted a doctor? Who knows. She won’t answer the phone. “You know how it is,” Lorna says. Soon we will too, but first Lorna has to go see for herself and convince Adam to go with him, which, surprisingly, suits him: X, driving to Vermont to visit an elderly woman in a mothballed house and using Kleenex, if the ego could conceive of nothing more horrible, then in order to be defeated, the ego must submit to this test.
For Adam, who only sees her on Thanksgiving every year, his grandmother is “[s]round, square, broad-faced, in brown woolen slacks and a brown cardigan that smelled of mothballs, with worn leather buttons dangling from black thread. Short gray hair that looked like it had been cut herself. Oversized glasses with pink frames and stained lenses.
During World War II, as a girl, she had cycled through Amsterdam, delivering coded messages to her sister, a nurse in the Resistance. The family had “sometimes even hid the children in a kitchen cabinet. When soldiers came to arrest her sister and father, G escaped down the back stairs and cycled out of town to a convent school, where the nuns took her in.
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At least that’s the story he’d told Lorna as a child, before suddenly disappearing without a word. Decades later, shortly after Adam’s birth, she’d reappeared with a terse postcard from Vermont, where she’d settled. This is the source of Lorna’s trauma. And in Marika’s reluctance to answer questions about her own history, we suspect (rightfully) that she’s also been racking up trauma long ago.
It’s a lot of plot and a pretty neat lineup of generational trauma. But “The Blue Window” is a novel in which revelations are history, and how these variously suppressed, repressed, and ill-processed life-altering events come to light is at least as interesting as whatever horrific things happened.
Lorna’s work as a therapist has obvious interpretive value, as she has a propensity, as well as the professional means, to analyze every act and observation for its deeper meaning, even as she reframes every exchange into ‘sharing’ and ‘feeling’.
But Berne has a delightful way with the healer-heal-yourself trope, because when Lorna finally decides to confront her mother about her long-ago desertion, all that professional restraint melts away and the result is both painful and hilarious. . And beneath the specifics of Adam, Lorna and Marika’s stories, there is a sense that a generational shift is itself a kind of natural trauma.
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Berne, whose 1998 novel “A Crime in the Neighborhood” won the British Orange Prize, now the Women’s Prize for Fiction, is good at capturing the subtle shifts in people’s moods and understandings, and particularly good at grounding these moments in detail watch carefully.
Marika feels “a flaccid drip in her chest, as if her heart is trying to overturn.” Lorna sees “pale scarves of mist” on the water. A speedboat follows “a rooster’s tail of frothy wake”. The golden retriever waits, “his tail is a feathered metronome.” A strip of grass is “chipped with foil wrappers”. A house is “saturated with the heavy aura of People Not Speaking. Like walking on a damp sponge.
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The tension between the immediate and the imaginary or remembered is what makes this novel work, with Berne striking a satisfying balance between what happens, what it could mean, and what is needed to move forward. The past may be the past, but its meaning has yet to be determined. The possibilities are endless.
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and one short story collection, “The World Like a Knife.”
Scribner/Marysue Rucci Books. 272 pages $27
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