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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, August 24th, 2003


The Probable Future

by Alice Hoffman

Flights of the Sparrow Women

A review by Sarah Churchwell

Alice Hoffman specializes in stories in which the supernatural gracefully inhabits the ordinary world; her best- known book (thanks to its Hollywood film version) is doubtless Practical Magic. Love can have especially uncanny effects: flowers burst into riotous bloom out of season, the elbows of a boy in love curdle a linoleum counter, ghosts haunt the living, a woman weeps tears of blood over a man. Hoffman has often been termed a magical realist, but actually her books, appropriately enough, offer the North American reverse of that South American sensibility. Whereas magical realism treats the marvellous (flight, telepathy, angels, resurrection) as commonplaces, Hoffman describes a contemporary American world redeemed by its unexpected contact with the mystical. Special faculties mark the exceptional person, or family, in an otherwise unremarkable town. In magical realism, reality is already magical; Hoffman offers a realistic magic, decidedly female, in which folk wisdom, theosophy, superstition and witchcraft mingle familiarly with traditional domestic arts. Magical realism blends indigenous folk tales with Catholicism, but Hoffman's spiritual ancestry is Yankee Puritanism: her magic would have to be practical.

Hoffman's books are often set in small Massachusetts villages in which mythical versions of seventeenth-century New England have survived to the present day, like American Brigadoons. Massachusetts has a peculiar status in the American imagination; half-arcadian, half-austere, it is the legendary (if not historical) origin of the United States, the Commonwealth which held the infamous Salem witch trials in the 1690s, a land of harsh winters and tight lips, but also a postcard state of snug towns with white frame houses and tree-lined commons. This eccentric history provides Hoffman with the foundation for stories about clans of self-sufficient women living alone in old gingerbread houses who cast spells, mix potions, and do a lot of gardening. (Although they may take jobs as waitresses or bank clerks, they never seem unduly troubled by mundane problems like how to pay the property tax on their rambling old manses.) Gifted with witchcraft, clairvoyance, second sight, these women are usually single, widowed, divorced, or otherwise abandoned by the inferior men around them. They may even be directly descended from a victim of the Salem witch trials, which roots these otherwise consolatory fables in the history of the implacable extermination of rebellious women. Hoffman's finest novels are part Brothers Grimm, part Nathaniel Hawthorne, reworking a mixed heritage of tales about the dangers and the lure of the unfamiliar. Both gift and curse, power isolates her women as much as it strengthens them.

Like Practical Magic (which it closely resembles), Hoffman's sixteenth novel, The Probable Future, returns to this common ground: a small town in Massachusetts — pointedly named Unity — inhabited by the Sparrow women, each of whom for 300 years has awakened on her thirteenth birthday with a special ability. The first, Rebecca Sparrow, who could feel no physical pain, mysteriously appeared in Unity in 1682, having walked out of the water. In a nod to The Scarlet Letter, Rebecca became an outcast, not only because she was a stranger with weird powers, but because she later gave birth to an illegitimate daughter. The town retaliated for these equal trangressions by sewing rocks into the hem of her clothes and drowning her just before her eighteenth birthday. Ever since, each of Rebecca's female descendants has inherited a single unique aptitude: seeing in the dark, walking through fire, finding anything lost, transforming stones into food, not needing sleep. One Sparrow woman could outrun any man, a useful skill in a town in which, as so often happens in Hoffman's tales, the men are alternately bewitched and threatened by powerful women.

As the novel opens, Elinor Sparrow is dying of cancer, alone in Cake House, the ancestral Sparrow home and the oldest dwelling in Unity (we are repeatedly told); cold and withdrawn, she spends her time gardening, obsessed by her desire to produce a blue rose. Estrangement has overtaken the lives of Elinor and her daughter, Jenny, partly as a result of the ways they have misunderstood their particular gifts.

Elinor can faultlessly detect a liar, but has ruined her life because she could not always recognize the truth. She so disapproved of Jenny's marriage to the liar Will Avery that mother and daughter have not spoken for twenty-five years. Jenny can dream other people's dreams, but by implication cannot dream her own: she ran away with Will because she mistakenly credited him with the beautiful dreams of his brother Matt.

Jenny is in turn alienated from her teenaged daughter Stella, who resents her mother's intrusive over-protectiveness. Stella is the thirteenth generation of Rebecca's line, and like her mother and grandmother, she has been granted a talent with a double edge. On her thirteenth birthday, she wakes up with the unexpected ability to predict how people will die. When Stella foresees a murder, she asks her useless father Will to help prevent it; instead, he becomes the prime suspect, and Stella herself is placed at risk from the murderer. To protect her, Jenny sends Stella to Cake House, before following her, as does Will, and even Stella's best friend Juliet, who is also alienated from her family. Clearly this excess of disconnection will be overcome in Unity — which is exactly what happens."the probable future" is not hard to predict; its inventiveness is all on the surface.

Cake House began as Rebecca's humble washerwoman's shack, but was added to by subsequent generations, who "piled on porches and dormers, bay windows and beehive ovens, as though smoothing icing onto a wedding cake. Here was a crazy quilt built out of mortar and bricks, green glass and whitewash, which had grown up as though it had a life of its own".

This description applies all too aptly to the book itself, which is nothing if not over-embellished. The story is cluttered with narrative knicknacks, bagatelles of frustrating insignificance. When Rebecca first appeared in Unity, she not only had a silver star around her neck, but also a silver compass and a golden bell, apparently only so that Hoffman could preserve these relics, along with the braid of Rebecca's hair that was cut off when she was drowned, and the ten bloodstained arrowheads shot at her by local boys for fun, in a glass case that is a "museum of pain". If this is supposed to suggest entrapment in the past, Hoffman describes these objects so often that she seems to be fingering them as lovingly as anyone, returning again and again to gaze fondly at her treasures.

Stella is given a gold bell, like Rebecca's, for her birthday, which she wears for a day before Hoffman forgets about it. For no apparent reason, Stella steals Matt Avery's Masters thesis about Rebecca (instead of asking her uncle if she can read it), a crime which is treated portentously but has no ramifications. The long-deferred full story of Rebecca Sparrow in particular proves brief, and anti-climactic. The Probable Future should have been a much better book: the story of Rebecca Sparrow is compelling; the gifts of the Sparrow women, and especially their symbolic misinterpretations, are wonderfully suggestive. But instead of fully developing her ideas, or her characters, Hoffman just piles more on, darting from one to another like a sparrow herself.

Hoffman's always richly cadenced prose proves equally overabundant. Stella is born in March, "the month of the Sparrows, season of snow and of spring, of lions and lambs, of endings and beginnings, green month, white month, month of heartache, month of extreme good luck"; for good measure, she adds a page later that in Stella "seemed to exist all of March's traits, the evens and the odds, the dark and the light, a child who would always be as comfortable with lions as she was with lambs". Phrases keep accumulating. Elinor offers a taxonomy of rain: "fish rain, rose rain, daffodil rain, glorious rain, red clover rain, boot polish rain, swamp rain, the fearsome stone rain"; Stella categorizes lies: "lie of omission, lie of a teenaged girl . . . white lie, pink lie, black-and-blue lie". This is at least original, if extravagant. But we are also told that roses are like people: "Some were wild, others were in need of constant care. Although many varieties had been transformed and tamed, no two were exactly alike".

Actually, most of the people in this book are exactly alike: they are well-meaning but misguided, driven primarily by love. (Virtually everyone in Unity seems destined to be permanently mated at thirteen, which many might consider a fate worse than death.) They have no other desires: no one wants to get rich, or to get even, or even to get out of town. All the dark desires in humanity are condensed into the contrived form of one poor murderer, whose paint-by-numbers motivation is hastily sketched in just in time for him to be eliminated by pathetic fallacy in the guise of natural fiat. These are one-dimensional stock characters, clichés bursting into flower. Just like roses.

The Probable Future, like its title, hedges bets. There is no awful daring, no surrender to forces greater than oneself. All weakness will be overcome (the feckless Will Avery in particular is granted an unearned and extremely unpersuasive redemption), and nothing very bad will happen to good people. Vision seems curiously blinkered: the emphasis on Cake House being the oldest and most interesting abode in Unity comes to appear less history than snobbery; this ostensibly woman-centred novel has no real definition of happiness apart from heterosexual bliss. The power of the Sparrow women is focused on their relationships with men: Elinor has withdrawn because she was betrayed by her husband, who didn't tell her the truth (that he was having an affair) before he died in a car crash; Jenny dreams the dreams of her ex-husband and her true love Matt Avery but rarely of her daughter or mother, and never of anyone else; Stella fleetingly foretells the death of strangers and of her grandmother (who has cancer), but her real anxiety is the "probable" death of a local boy who has become her best friend, a prospect that preoccupies her until it provides the novel with its climax. Stella is not disturbed by visions of her parents' deaths, or by those of her other friends, or the boy she loves. Or, indeed, her own. In a particularly saccharine turn, she decides to become a doctor, and use her power for good. This is a cheap escape from what ought to be a dark, difficult charge.

At her best, Hoffman uses small miracles to signify a secular state of grace: in one particularly lovely passage, a doctor remembers coming to terms with death. But The Probable Future is mostly not Alice Hoffman at her best. Things are out of balance: too much magic, not enough realism.

Sarah Churchwell is a lecturer in the School of English and American Studies at the Universiry of East Anglia, UK

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