Craig Laurance Gidney
Completed 9/22/2020, Reviewed 9/22/2020
When I began this book, I was a bit disoriented. I loved Gidney’s Sea, Swallow Me and was fully expecting to love this one. Expectations ran high. To my dismay, it started a little slowly. The book is told from multiple points of view and it took me quite a few chapters to really get what was going on. Then the plot started to sink in and I got it. I got the layers of meaning, the smart prose, and the colorful characters. It all wove together into a terrific, non-traditional ghost story, using artistic obsession as its medium. This book was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 2019.
There’s a museum in the tiny town of Shimmer, Maryland that features quilts, paintings, and assorted other forms of art by people who were not trained artists. The quilts were made by a young slave woman, the paintings by a drifter with a skin condition, bottle art by someone living off the grid of the 1950s, etc. All the art pieces have a common color in them, a purplish-pinkish hue. The people who created the art were all obsessed with their work and this color. People who see the art are affected in different ways. Some see nothing but amateurish drivel. Some see the beginnings of a modern art movement. A select few see a magic and become obsessed artists themselves and it all points to something in the marsh that surrounds the town.
As I noted above, there are a number of characters through whom the story is told. Xavier is a grad student who comes to Shimmer to study the quilts. He first saw one of the quilts, made by Hazel the young slave girl, at a party and became obsessed with them. Linc is a young gay former crystal meth addict who was kicked out of his home. He drifts into Shimmer and becomes a janitor at the museum. Iris was a psychic since childhood, seeing spectres and auras. She lives in Shimmer, her ex-partner having passed away about a year before. All these people come to experience the obsession with the art in one way or another. There is another voice, that of the spectre itself, only known as Fuchsia, who seems to be the source of the obsession.
The character development is quite good for such a short novel. It’s only 177 pages, but we get a lot of personality out of the characters. In addition to the characters noted above, we also find out a lot about Hazel through the narration by Fuschia, learning how she deals with being a slave and how she comes to make the quilts.
The book also deals with race, sexuality, and slavery. Most of the main characters are black and gay or lesbian. It’s not pronounced, but racism and homophobia are part of some of the characters’ experiences. The characterization is subtly written with passing references to things like physical features and gaydar. More dramatic is the story of Hazel’s enslavement, though she has “kind” owners who don’t whip their slaves at the drop of a hat or cut off fingers or limbs. They “only” box their ears, sell their children, and beat them when the master’s drunk.
I give this book five stars out of five. I really empathized with the characters, feeling their growing compulsion to create. I especially felt this with Iris and Linc’s stories, although I wish got more of Linc. His story enthralled me the most, finding it an intense ride. I loved Gidney’s descriptions of the creation of the art by the different main and secondary characters. And I love Gidney’s writing. His prose is spare, but he creates vivid images of the people and their art. I think you have to read this book slowly because you don’t want to miss any of the words. It took me about as long to read this book as the it did the last one which was a hundred pages longer. The beginning is a slow burn, but then I didn’t want it to end. I just wanted to savor the experiences of the creation of art and the passion of the people.