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Evocative Tales Weave Too Nebulous a Plot

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE STRENGTH OF THE SUN

A Novel

By Catherine Chidgey

Henry Holt

272 pages, $23

*

The eerie beauty of a solar eclipse. The nocturnal dance of fireflies. The gleam of gilded letters in a medieval manuscript. The haunting look of a photograph that, on closer inspection, dissolves into a lifeless pattern of black and white dots. A house destroyed, then rebuilt. The diary of a teenage girl who disappeared. The frangibility volatility and resiliency of the material world itself, the world in which we live and die.

These are some of the images, objects, and concepts from which New Zealand writer Catherine Chidgey has woven the shimmering fabric of her second novel, an exquisitely written, curiously tantalizing book that looks something like a mystery story, but is something far more evanescent.

“The Strength of the Sun” involves a complicated-seeming plot with several story lines, odd coincidences and curious links between characters on opposite sides of the globe. In 1999, a New Zealand college girl named Colette receives a puzzling piece of mail from England. It’s been sent by an informal group calling itself “The Friends of Patrick Mercer.” A man in his 60s, Mercer is a curator of medieval manuscripts. He has just been severely injured in an automobile accident and his self-appointed friends have been getting in touch with people mentioned in his diaries and address books, encouraging them to visit, write or contribute to a fund to help him if he is able to leave the hospital. The “friends” believe that Colette was someone quite important to Patrick at some point in his life. Colette, however, has no memory of meeting such a man.

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More than a decade earlier, in the New Zealand of 1988, where people are coming from all over the world to view what promises to be a spectacular solar eclipse, a 15-year-old local girl named Laura Pearse sets off in her car to see it for herself. She never returns. Her heartbroken parents, Ruth and Malcolm, have been trying to pick up the pieces of their lives ever since. Eventually, they have another child, Daniel, move out of their old house and rent it to students. One of those students happens to be Colette, who also becomes Daniel’s baby-sitter.

How does the medieval manuscript curator fit into all this? Well, he did want to go to New Zealand to see the eclipse, but much to his regret, he did not. And he did have a kind of disaster in his own life when, as a boy holding out a magnifying glass to intensify the sun’s rays, he inadvertently started a fire that burned his family’s home.

As the novel unfolds, links between its disparate characters become evident. But the links are not causal and this book is no mystery novel. Indeed, in some ways, this book is more poem than novel. For if the creation of distinctive, memorable, complex characters is one of the hallmarks of the classic novel, the characters in this book are insubstantial and interchangeable. The plot, too, is rather nebulous. Chidgey’s interests seem to lie elsewhere: in the relationship between human feeling and the material world, in how we try to hold onto memories even as accidents, disasters and time itself take their toll on us and all our attempts to preserve or uncover the past.

“Every contact leaves a trace,” the police assure the parents of the vanished girl. Her father assiduously follows up the clues and details of the search, while her mother can no longer bear to read a newspaper. As a child Patrick believes that fireflies are spelling out messages. In the museum, he marvels at the intricacy of the illuminations blending word and picture, the resiliency of the inks and parchments that provide a window into the medieval world. Decorated with images of fantastic flora and fauna, the manuscripts on closer examination bear the traces of the animal skins from which they were made. Yet, as Patrick later feels as he sorts through his dead mother’s bland belongings, a trace is not the same as real contact.

Deftly, in almost painterly fashion, Chidgey arranges her images and themes in a balanced, aesthetically pleasing composition. It is tempting indeed to pronounce her novel a veritable poem in prose form. But the greatest poetry must contain fire as well as aesthetic form, energy as well as imagery. Chidgey certainly succeeds in conveying the emotional weight that physical objects have for her characters and in evoking both the strength and the vulnerability of the material world we inhabit. Yet the characters and their lives seem pallid compared with their furnishings and paraphernalia. “The Strength of the Sun” is a beautifully crafted, often poignant work that nonetheless seems to lack the vital spark needed to transform it into something even better.

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