Up High in the Trees by Kiara Brinkman
Reviewed by Ron Charles
Washington Post Book World
No one could blame you for turning away from Kiara Brinkman's haunting first novel. The muffled pain of Up High in the Trees will trigger your reflex for emotional protection but, if you can bear it, the treasures here are exquisite. I can't remember when I ever felt so torn between recoiling from a story and wishing I could somehow cross into its pages and comfort a character.
Brinkman's narrator, 8-year-old Sebby Lane, lives in Massachusetts with his father, a music professor at Wellesley, and his older sister and brother. All of them are rubbed raw with grief, clinging to their routines just to stay alive. Five months earlier Sebby's mother was hit and killed by a car while jogging at night. She had been pregnant, carrying a baby they had already named Sara Rose. In vignettes that range from just a few lines to a couple of pages, Sebby describes the harrowing months that follow his mother's death. He becomes increasingly confused and angry, aggressive and incommunicative. When he's suspended from the third grade, his father takes him to their summer house in Vermont, hoping the setting will give them both a chance to heal. But instead, his father quickly slides into a crippling depression, growing quieter and stiller until he's spending whole days lying on the floor listening to music or wandering barefoot through the snowy woods. Sebby is left to care for himself, bravely struggling to fathom the tragedy that tore their lives apart.
It's clear that he and his mother adored each other and sought refuge in a special emotional space amid this family. "I used to write notes to Mother," he tells us, "and hide them in places." Now, he's left with his memories of her, memories he's desperate to retain. "I can't fall asleep," he says one night, "because I know what I want is to remember everything Mother did." But even in the family stories that he polishes over and over, ominous implications about his mother's mental health seep through; her death seems less and less accidental.
Believe me, I have no interest in the kind of masochistic sentimentality this plot suggests, but it's saved from mawkishness by an arresting balance of delicacy and resiliency. Sebby speaks in a quiet, poetic voice, swollen with sorrow, but pared down to the point of austerity. Here's one of these vignettes in its entirety:
"Dad's waiting for us in the kitchen. He's sitting with his elbows on the table. Between his elbows, there's his black coffee mug with steam twisting up. I walk over to him. Dad grabs me and holds me against his loud chest. I put my hand over his heart and feel it beating. Dad stands up with me. He walks in circles around the table.
"Goddamn it, he says. He sets me down and looks at me with his hands on my shoulders and then he hugs me too hard."
Again and again we see Sebby's acute sensitivity to smells and sounds, his startling sense of the world around him: "Straight ahead," he says, "the empty white sky gets brighter. I look down at my lap, but the white sky glow stays and makes me see glowing spots all over. It's true that the sun can make you blind if you look at it for too long. I close my eyes tight and think about how the sun fills up the whole sky with light. Then my head is quiet and there's the sound of trees growing, stretching up and up. The trees are growing and making everything else small."
This is a novel in which the smallest, quietest moments are the most shattering. In one, Sebby takes a favorite picture of his mother and throws it in the lake. "I stand up with my hand hanging down heavy," he says, "and I watch the picture underwater. I'm waiting for Mother's picture to make me jump. Then Mother's face flickers dark and I jump in to save her." It's a weird little ritual, almost too intimate to endure, like so much of this heartbreaking novel, which should be read in a single, reverent hush.
Although none of the characters names his condition, Sebby exhibits symptoms of autism, probably a milder form called Asperger's syndrome. He can speak, but only in short sentences that sometimes seem inappropriate or illogical. He takes great comfort in routine and shuts down when stressed, retreating to hiding places under his bed or under tables. But he displays none of the savant abilities associated with autism in the popular imagination. (Thanks for nothing, "Rainman.") Though Sebby's family must deal with the exasperating demands of his condition at all times, his condition never becomes the focus of the novel. Readers who enjoyed Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will find this an entirely different book -- narrower emotionally and thematically. But like Haddon, Brinkman has tutored youngsters with autism, and parents of autistic children will find her sensitive portrayal of Sebby particularly moving.
And yet I can't emphasize enough that Up High in the Trees is not a novel about autism, a condition that affects nearly 1 percent of us; it's about grief, a condition that affects 100 percent of us at one time or another. Compared to the dysfunction all around him, Sebby's mental condition doesn't seem so peculiar at all. Indeed, in Brinkman's handling, autism becomes an illuminating metaphor for the isolating effects of mourning, and Sebby's innocent voice speaks for anyone bravely grasping for order and solace amid unspeakable loss.
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.