by Christine Schutt
Reviewed by Scott Bryan Wilson
Christine Schutt's superb new novel, All Souls, concerns itself with a sick girl named Astra Dell, and the ways in which Astra's illness affects everyone she knows, compelling them to confront -- or fail to confront -- their own insecurities and shortcomings.
All Souls begins "Mr. Dell, in his daughter's room, stuck his face into the horn of a stargazer lily, one of a...one of a...must have been a dozen, and he breathed in and said wasn't that something." This gorgeous, spare, perfectly crafted prose for which Schutt has become known permeates the novel without dominating it. In fact, the ebb and flow of the more poetic passages versus the intentionally plainer lines echoes the interplay of ideas and story in the novel: narratively impressionistic, the book hits plot points but abandons them to a half-spoken line of dialogue or a reaction, creating narrative holes that shade around the story rather than devoting pages to exposition. Much of the novel is in dialogue and its sparseness is handled with the same deftness and assuredness as the rest of the prose: staccato, brief, and disconnected, it hints only at what’s in the mind of the speaker.
This "airiness" of the novel works almost like breaths or slow heartbeats, creating room for the plentiful cast of characters, all of whom are affected by Astra's cancer and also united by the Siddons School for Girls -- a swank, K-12 private school on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But while the sick, often sleeping figure of Astra is the jumping-off point of the novel (and despite this she, by virtue of her almost absence, becomes the main character), the book itself is about women, about girls and daughters and mothers, both as individuals and as collectives. The list includes BFF's Suki and Alex, desperately trying to get into Brown and chasing a boy named Will Bliss; Marlene, a semi-outcast who finds solace in sitting by Astra's bedside and talking to her, even if she's asleep; teachers like Miss Mazur (pining after a coworker) and Miss Wilkes (pining after a student); and Astra's best friend, the anorexic Car Forestal, who "even...looked fat pressed next to Astra's bantam skull."
Schutt's characterizations -- which have to work in their ephemerality, for there are so many of them in a quite short novel -- never fall into cliche territory despite there being ample opportunity to depict Upper East Side Rich Bitches, and in fact, the few times the book alludes to this sort of behavior, it's in the characters' own admissions, as when Car says, "Look, I know I'm being a brat, but I'm a seventeen-year-old American Girl, Astra. I'm allowed." This refreshing teenage candor makes all the more sense when Car starts writing letters to Astra because she can't bear to visit her in the hospital, remarking things like "You are lucky in some ways because you will know what it is like to die, and the rest of us will spend our lives wondering," and "The only thing you have to excel at now is leaving, because you only get to once." When Car writes "People make the most impact on the lives of others by being absent," it's as if she's summed up Astra’s role in the novel.
This also sums up the roles of the men in the book, the few who show up, as they are also ghostlike, important only for how they affect others: Astra's father, a widower, helpless with grief and unable to find a way to communicate with his daughter; Car's father, a spectral figure who only exists as the empty apartment where Car goes when she can't handle her mother's nagging; Mr. O'Brien, a teacher who is in love with student Kitty Johnson (she describes their relationship as "the intensest sex without sex"); and Tim Weeks, a teacher, a gay man with whom hapless Anna Mazur, another teacher at Siddons, is in love.
Schutt handles the cancer and all of the emotions that come with it -- a wide range for a wide range of characters -- without sentimentality or frivolity, unless that's the emotional need of a character. Perhaps the only flaw of the book is the cover; with its hand-drawn flowers and yoga-posed teen, it seems to suggest the most suspect sort of Young Adult title or sentimental novel, nothing indicating the rogue prose poetry and skewed narrative style inside. It probably won't reel in many male readers who aren't already familiar with her work, which is too bad: All Souls is another solid, exciting work in Christine Schutt's already impressive oeuvre.
Scott Bryan Wilson is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi.