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Book Review : Saved From a Shallow Society World

Times Book Critic

The Whiteness of Bones by Susanna Moore (Doubleday: $17.95; 277 pages)

In its first part, “The Whiteness of Bones” tells with exuberant largesse of a childhood’s island kingdom, and of the act of violation that breached it and drained it of its mystery and freedom.

It then moves out of the childhood setting and replays the violation as its memory distorts the life of the young woman whom the child has become. The book is a 50-page theme, accordingly, followed by 200 pages of variations. The theme is crystalline; the variations are largely commonplace.

Susanna Moore’s second novel begins in the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Mamie, the protagonist, and her younger sister, Claire, live as free spirits on their family’s sugar plantation. They wander the estate without inhibition; they swim and climb and hurtle perilously down an aqueduct that plunges from the hilltop to the shore below.

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Their friends are the servants, the cane cutters, the villagers and their children. Their life is innocently imperious, bright-hued and safe. Their mother is interested chiefly in her garden, but her remoteness is balanced by their father’s companionable affection.

Act of Abuse

One afternoon, Mamie climbs into an accustomed place on the lap of Hiroshi, the aged gardener whom she loves for his gentleness, his white beard and his dry, work-hardened hands. This time, unexpectedly, he sexually caresses her.

The brief act of abuse is almost tender. Mamie jumps down and when she cranes around in confusion, she sees that Hiroshi has tears in his eyes. And Moore writes with a restraint that only sets off the gravity of what has happened:

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“She felt as though her body, by some mistake or accident, had passed out of her keeping. I did not have it very long, she thought.”

The caress is the first rupture in Mamie’s kingdom. The second is her father’s gentle dismissal of Hiroshi when she tells him what happened.

She is in anguish; she still loves the old man. But her feeling of guilt--if your sovereignty over your body is in question, how can you object to what is done to it?--might still be manageable. Her father’s sympathy may be a beginning of healing.

Her mother, though, furious at losing her gardener, chooses to blame her daughter for making a fuss over very little. Later, the mother will soften, but it is too late.

“That she had profoundly altered Mamie’s view of the world and herself in it did not occur to her,” Moore writes. And for Mamie, “What she had not known was that the almost unbearable weight of grief and regret brought on by her assumption of responsibility would nearly crush her.”

The strength and beauty of this first part lie in Moore’s vision of childhood’s simultaneity. Mamie’s confusion, her self-estrangement and grief, are set beside the other things that are happening; outings, adventures, the budding of perception. The kingdom is breached, but it is still there, in all its variety. Only later does the event come to rule.

Psychological Nemesis

It is this “later” that turns a promising, even exciting book into a routine playing-out of psychological nemesis. Mamie’s problem, her sense of worthlessness and her inability either to trust men or stand up to them, remains. Mamie largely becomes the cipher in which the problem is stated.

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After the deaths of her father and Hiroshi in a tsunami, Mamie--who feels guilty in different ways for both--is sent off to school. The book then skips to New York, where she goes after leaving college. Introduced around by her hard-bitten, dissolute aunt, Mamie, and later Claire, join a druggy and shallow New York society world.

It is a monied, zombie-like world that has become entirely familiar to us through books and articles in such magazines as New York and Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, Moore’s characterization is at the magazine level. Mamie’s New York life is one long, glossy cliche. She drifts from party to party, is taken up by a depraved clothes designer, finds her friends and her sister sinking into vacuous and destructive addictions, and is brutally assaulted in a sleazy nightclub.

Mamie herself, though not quite a zombie, has lost her mystery and color. Moore has turned the pulsing child into a limp adult case history.

Mamie finds a rescuer; we, unfortunately, do not. He is rich, world-weary and sensitive. He wears these qualities as an ad model wears clothes. They are good, old, not too assertive clothes. The ad is for one of those select investment houses that portray you standing at a weathered-brick entrance, mist rising from the vast lawn; and that offer to manage your money if you have enough of it.

Alder Stoddard--he’s named after a tree and his money goes back several generations--treats Mamie as tenderly as if she were a trust fund. He gives her refuge on his gentleman-farm and in his New York townhouse. He brings her striped shirts, baked potatoes with sour cream and Roy Orbison tapes in bed. They have tastefully strategic sex. Bit by bit, her rehabilitation begins; though it will probably not be completely until she returns to Hawaii and Alder follows.

The glibness of the rescuer marks the quality of the rescue. The glibness of the rescue marks the quality of the rescued. Mamie, the golden child, has become as thin as the pages she turns in.


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