Book Review : Stories Explore Intimate Connections
Celebration by Mary Lee Settle (Farrar Straus Giroux: $17.95)
More concentrated than the “Beulah Quintet,” “Celebration” follows a similar pattern of diverse stories told from various vantage points. Settle’s technique is geological; a gradual layering of character and incident to build a monolith. The process is accretive, each of the six sections in this book apparently independent until the subsequent chapter is added. Once that happens, a bond is formed, the intricate connections deepening with each succeeding segment. “Celebration” is art imitating nature; the language richer and more deliberate than ordinary speech; events supercharged with significance; the exotic settings heightened by sensuous imagery; an elaborate plot set into motion by coincidence.
The first section belongs essentially to the 30-year-old anthropologist Teresa Cerutti, widowed four years earlier while on an academic honeymoon in Kurdistan. Now Teresa is living alone in London, in a charming apartment all too serendipitously found for her by acquaintance in the Foreign Service. She’s recovering not only from her husband’s death but from a bout with cancer; reassembling her life much the way she might re-create an ancient artifact, using training and intuition to fill the gaps left by illness and death. On her own, having fled her routine university job and the officious help of her colleagues and doctors, she’s doing a fine job of reinventing herself.
She’s pursuing an independent project at the British Museum and enjoying the company of the eccentrics who live in her building; letting nature take its course. That process includes an emotional return to the Kurdistan village where Michael met his bizarre death, a journey crammed with atmosphere. Against the background of a remote and virtually unknown corner of the Middle East, the personality of Teresa Cerutti emerges with uncommon clarity. By the end of the first section, we know the anthropologist and have seen that mountain fastness from her scholarly perspective.
In the second section, Teresa is back in London where she meets Ewen McLeod, newly returned from Africa and also recovering from trauma, ostensibly a particularly virulent form of malaria. Later we will learn that his chills and fever are aggravated by the memory of events even more shattering than those in Teresa’s background, but for the moment we’re merely watching the first tentative beginnings of love between survivors. At this point we’re introduced to Pius, the African monk who has shared Ewen’s adventures. A man of extraordinary intellect and sensitivity, Pius is the charming and altogether sympathetic actualization of the mysterious Black Monk who has long haunted Teresa’s dreams.
In this fictional inversion of Gresham’s Law, the good black monk drives the bad black monk out of circulation to dissipate Teresa’s nightmares. Ewen is also a scholar, a geologist obsessed with the properties of sand; working on a definitive study of its possibilities. Each of the tenants in the apartment house has an equally meaningful specialty selected to symbolize trends and attitudes prevailing in the late 1960s. These friends and acquaintances form the supporting cast, playing their roles to the hilt.
The Hong Kong segment of the book concentrates upon Noel, the homosexual English peer who was Teresa’s dearest friend and first love. A gentle and aesthetic boy when she met him, Noel is now a man without illusion, as battered by the circumstances of his life as Teresa and Ewen are by theirs. Resilient, self-deprecating, and utterly candid, Noel comes to terms with his past by confiding all to Teresa; his tragedy unfolding against the hothouse atmosphere of Hong Kong. Now there are three central characters, each acting as catalyst for the other two. Pius makes four, his African youth providing a stark contrast to the lives of Teresa, Ewen and Noel.
Pius’ hegira from tribal prince to Catholic monk leads to the complete account of Ewen’s African sojourn, a tale beginning in Scotland with his complex boyhood relationship to his Uncle Gordie. Gordie is a soldier of fortune, through the romantic phrase hardly describes the unprincipled mercenary Gordie has become. Ewen’s trans-African odyssey with his uncle and two companions is an experience of such intensity that it all but overwhelms the melodrama of the other lives.
Sheer Force of Will
Touching, uniting and resolving, these separate histories are compacted into a novel by sheer force of the author’s will. “I learned,” says Noel, “that it isn’t whom we love but that we love, and I learned that we must see things through to the end, if there is an end.”
One way and another, these characters demonstrate aspects of that truism, demanding that we accept Settle’s affirmative view that strength, joy and fulfillment are best achieved through suffering and adversity.