A Brilliant Portrait of Monstrous Abuse : DAUGHTERS OF MEMORY, by Janis Arnold, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $16.95, 367 pages

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's astonishing to read this book against the recent history of the Supreme Court hearings, where regardless of what actually happened, the television viewer was treated to a crash course in how people behave in regard to certain "unpleasant matters."

They lie or tell the truth; they stay calm or have tantrums; they sometimes do all of the above. A larger truth that came out of those hearings is that sometimes some very unpleasant things do happen; the participants and the innocent bystanders must somehow collude in a myth, a story, a fiction, that will somehow ultimately make things "right."

Although sometimes some men (or women) might do things that they may (or may not) regret later on, daily life must go on in ways in which the larger human community must be accommodated. Children, though abused, must show up at school. Wives, though intimidated and insulted, must shop for groceries and clothes, go to work. Husbands, though they may be monsters by night, still must earn a living by day, get new tires for the car and so forth.

Weird! So strange, in fact, that in the short run "secrecy" in regard to sexual acting-out may indeed seem to be the best policy. In recent years though, women novelists, one by one, have begun to tell their tales, hiding behind the gossamer of fiction.

Some husbands, not necessarily their husbands, have battered their wives. Some fathers, not necessarily their fathers, have abused their children. Some upstanding men--not necessarily anyone we know--have committed sexual crimes, and it is often the reaction of the family, as a primitive form of self-protection, to create a nacreous shell of respectability and domesticity around that sexual stone of truth, to shield everyone--hopefully--from that unyielding truth.

In this wonderful novel, Janis Arnold gives us a respectable Southern family. The father regularly rapes his two daughters; the mother, knowingly or unknowingly, colludes. Does she know? The reader will never know because that mother is metaphorically blind for most of the narrative.

The father's mother lives next door and offers a refuge--not a very good one--for the younger sister. Does that grandmother know? We're not sure.

The critical mass--not the series of sexual encounters but the knowledge of these encounters--is bounced back and forth between the two brilliantly drawn sisters whose voices move from truth to deceit and back again. The older, Claire Louise, is furious, mercenary, vengeful and (perhaps) haunted by guilt because she has run away from home at 16, leaving her younger sister, Macy, to the brutal ministrations of their father--who, amazingly, you have to feel sorry for.

Macy is governed by sheer terror and can't allow herself to remember anything. She is good and kind and desperate and seeks professional help and breaks out in hives, but--because it would be unthinkable to blame her mother, her grandmother, even the one or two servants who may or may not know--she blames her sister for every known crime under the sun. (Which of course suits the father and the larger society just fine, because then all of us may never have to face the "unpleasant" fact that sometimes some men, no matter how respectable or prominent, behave very strangely indeed.)

There are no villains here, and no victims: just an assortment of strong human beings trying to keep sane in the face of monstrosity. I don't want to know how Janis Arnold knows what she knows, but she has shown genius in the way she has fabricated this novel.

Next: Constance Casey reviews "Mothers of Psychoanalysis" by Janet Sayers (Norton).

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