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Time Machine

Donna Seaman is an editor at Booklist

Kathryn Davis hints at the complexity of her entrancing new novel in koan-like opening lines that indicate that the narrator has embarked on a journey into the past. As Susan tries to reconstruct the tragic events of her “famous mother’s infamous summer in Wales,” she rereads the postcards she received and reconsiders all she was told during that summer of her 13th year and, in doing so, chronicles her present life and the harsh existence radically altered by the events that followed her mother and father’s fateful and fatal trip.

By turns wry and poetic, Susan brings her parents and their traveling companions indelibly to life. She all but worships her profoundly self-possessed mother, an artist who is the magnetic center of this story. A loner, Carole cares only for her daughter, her work and her husband, the sexually magnetic and untrustworthy Bobby Rose. Carole allegedly loves her best friend, Ruth Farr, too, but they are temperamental opposites and devious rivals.

Carole and Ruth conceal their competitiveness as best they can. Their husbands are business partners; Ruth’s husband, Coleman Snow, and Rose (yes, their names are as metaphorically significant as they sound) met as faculty at a small bland liberal arts college and ended up inventing astronomically profitable computer software programs that threaten the integrity of everything from newspapers to Shakespeare. Wealthy beyond their dreams and at loose ends--although Snow is conducting secret negotiations behind Rose’s back regarding a super-powerful computer board--they set off with their wives on the ill-fated walking tour of Wales, leaving Susan alone with the housekeeper on the Roses’ huge, rambling Maine estate.

Wales is a rugged and mercurial place of myth and mysticism, and Davis adroitly connects the internal tensions of the traveling foursome, and the tour group they join, with the wild beauty of the stony land and stormy sea. A master at choreographing group dynamics, Davis sets up every conceivable form of sexual frisson among her engagingly eccentric cast members, who include a pair of Polish newlyweds, two young women who may or may not be lesbians, a clever Asian man deliberately conforming to the stereotype of the inscrutable Oriental and the tour directors themselves: the alluring, abrasive and careless Brenda and sweet David, a great cook and feather-smoother. The group’s chemistry is toxic, and everything they do together is fraught with either duplicity or danger. Meals are conversational minefields; car seating arrangements wreak emotional havoc; stories of fairies and other mysterious forces make everyone jumpy; and mist, wind and rain make each excursion treacherous, until finally one outing proves fatal.

*

Susan re-creates the past and describes her present in scintillating and richly metaphorical detail. Every sentence uncoils with supple grace. Although her account of the walking tour is wonderfully suspenseful, Davis has planted enough clues about its horrific outcome (although the specific victims come as a surprise) to prepare her readers for a full disclosure, but the dire nature of Susan’s present life comes as a complete shock. The once impressive Rose estate, where Susan still lives, has slumped into a state of hopeless disrepair. Overrun by giant weeds, the estate has become home not only to hoards of mice but also to a scruffy young man named Monkey who creeps in, helping himself to Susan’s belongings and food and ultimately saving her life.

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Although the novel’s time frame is only vaguely defined, it is clear that Susan’s present is in our not-too-distant future. A seemingly casual remark of Susan’s suggests that the walking tour took place in the early years of the 21st century. Because Susan describes herself as middle-aged, her narration must be taking placing in the middle of the next century. Life on Earth has changed so much for the worse that what begins as a literary novel in the tradition of Henry James ultimately becomes science fiction. Davis orchestrated a similar stylistic modulation in her last novel, “Hell,” which was an overt blend of mystery and surreal fantasy. Here the blurring of genres is more subtle, hence more intriguing and, eventually, utterly unnerving.

As the novel draws to a close, things grow stranger. Animals show signs of genetic mutation; human society is reverting to tribal life and many people are homeless. The oppressive haze that seems to obscure the sea and cloak the sun and moon is just a prelude to a “break in the atmosphere.” Susan suggests that the catalyst for these environmental catastrophes was Rose and Snow’s cosmos-altering computer board, but Davis eschews burdensome technological explanations. This inexactness is the plot’s Achilles’ heel, but the novel’s emotional and psychological content is riveting, and the beauty of the writing transcends this flaw. Beguiling and bracing, Davis’ original metamorphosing tale is infused with a condemnation of technology and the abuse of nature. In Davis’ provocative vision of a post-apocalyptic culture, literacy is rare but image-making and storytelling are intrinsic to survival.


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