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July 3, 2012

Stony River by Tricia Dower

It was funny to be reading Tricia Dower’s Stony River this morning, sprawled on the grass under trees at the park while Harriet played in the wading pool, to be as blissed out as the girl on the cover appears to be. And as that cover might suggest, this is indeed an ideal book for a summer long weekend, to curl up on the grass with, or on the dock, or on a towel on the beach. The book opens up with an irresistible literary map, so you can choose to navigate Stony River or simply get lost in it.

I interviewed Tricia Dower in 2008, after the publication of her first book, the short story collection Silent Girl. Dower’s new book expands upon Silent Girl‘s first story, and is also connected to the book in other more surprising ways. Each of Silent Girl‘s stories took its cue from a Shakespearean play, but with a contemporary, feminist spin, and Dower took  great leaps and risks in writing in a wide range of voices. Similarly, Stony River has a theatrical/cinematic feel, a sense of epic, of grandness, and Dower is ambitious in her approach, tackling crime fiction, riffing on True Romance, writing men and women, children and adults, and considering topics including domestic violence, depression, incest, religion, the supernatural, and murder.

Though Stony River seems at first an unlikely backdrop for such a story. A sleepy New Jersey town in the 1950s, most of what happens tends to go on behind closed doors. But one door is busted open on a hot summer day when 12 year-old Linda Wise and her tough-girl pal Tereza witness a young girl and baby boy being removed by the police from the home of “Crazy Haggerty,” a local character who’d been assumed all these years to live alone. When the crazy man dies, however, the existence of the girl–his daughter– and her son come to light, kept prisoner in his house for years, the younger child likely to be a product of incest. Linda and Tereza learn details of the case from the newspaper, and it sets off a chain of events that spins the girls’ lives far apart but also keeps them irrevocably bound.

The unknown girl is Miranda, who is cast into a world she’s only heard about from the books her father urged her to read from his expansive library. She finds refuge with the wife of a local police officer, who stays close to Miranda even after she’s sent to a Catholic orphanage to live with her son. Miranda is urged by everyone to confirm the identity of her son’s father, but she refuses to, insisting that his conception had been by divine intervention. Turns out her father had been a worshipper of various pagan gods and goddesses from his Irish homeland, and Miranda carries with her a special kind of vision. Her religious passion seems easily transferable to her Catholic surroundings, and soon the nuns admit that she possesses a strange connection to God. They’re urging her to become a nun herself, to give up her son and begin life anew, and Miranda refuses to.

Miranda’s sections of the novel are narrated in present tense, providing a sense of immediacy that makes sense as we see her discovering the world around her, whereas Tereza and Linda’s sections are in past tense, the ’50s in sepia tones, rife with cultural references. Tereza is already a girl in trouble and she sees Crazy Haggerty’s now-abandoned house as a perfect place to hide from her abusive stepfather. Whilst hiding, she discover’s Haggerty’s enormous stash of cash, and uses it to skip town for good, running away with a boy she’s met at the White Castle who has a shady past, is a devotee of Charles Atlas, and whose well-intentioned grandmother is happy to put her up for a while.

Meanwhile, Linda stays put in Stony River, wondering what became of her spirited friend, attempting to please her unhappy mother and trying desperately to conform to the 1950s’ expectation of womanhood that Tereza never bothered to understand, Tereza who’d preferred to imagine herself as a Hollywood starlet. One evening Linda gets into a car with an unknown man and is assaulted in the woods, and is left alone to deal with the fear and shame of her experience because she has no one to tell, and because anyone she did tell would protest that she’d been “asking for it.”

But when young girls begin to go missing around Stony River, Linda can longer permit herself to stay silent, putting her reputation on the line to bring her assaulter to trial, unknowingly also bringing herself back into Tereza’s orbit, and Miranda’s too. There turn out to be parallels between Linda’s ordinary life and Tereza and Miranda’s more extraordinary ones, and as ever, it turns out that nothing is quite what it seems.

Dower’s writing is excellent, her period details wonderfully wrought, a sense of place and time absolutely evoked. The novel is bursting with its seams with story and plot, though sometimes the plot fits too tidily into place and the seams themselves are too visible. With so many characters too, it’s not surprising that some are flat, that they all aren’t drawn with the depth of Miranda. And it’s true that after the novel’s mid-point, its pacing begins to fall off a bit, that you’ll wonder where the story is going. But, if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself sprawled on the grass like I was, or on the dock, or on the beach as the novel begins to reach its conclusion. And then you won’t be able to put it down, caught up in the drama, the intrigue, and the feeling– the joy of a perfect summer read.

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