Sunday, January 27, 2008

Every Last Cuckoo

If you’re looking for a fast paced, tightly plotted reading experience, perhaps you should pass on Every Last Cuckoo by Kate Maloy. If, however, you delight in meeting characters that draw you in to a very special time and place, then by all means join the cuckoos in the warblers’ nest.

From Publishers Weekly
When 75-year-old Sarah Lucas's husband, Charles, succumbs to an injury at the peak of a particularly brutal Vermont winter, her worst later-life fears of physical mishap are realized. In grief, Sarah's memories take her back to the Great Depression, when her parents generously opened their home to countless friends and relatives, and to her own regretted missteps as a parent. The chance to recreate the one experience and rectify the other arrives uninvited when a variety of lost souls--Sarah's own teenage granddaughter; an Israeli pacifist; a devastated young mother and child--seek shelter and solace in Sarah's too-empty home. The motley assortment of characters, many of whom have been touched by violence, deliver passionate apostrophes on peace and justice, and together Sarah and her boarders discover unseen beauty in the landscape, uncover hidden talents and develop a nurturing, healing community. Maloy's wordplay and startling nature imagery enchant….

A feverish Sarah grasping at memories…
Hot and cold, she set herself adrift, hoping to sleep again and fool whatever virus or toxin had invaded her. Soon she entered a suspended awareness in which she was conscious yet assailed by images her conscious mind did not produce. Where had she seen that piece of road, that sweet rise and bend that now unspoiled behind her eyes? The ocean, or perhaps a lake, lay to the right of it, a fringe of trees and a tucked cottage to the left. Up ahead, around a curve, a causeway crossed the wide water, but from where to where? Sarah tried to remember, but it was like snatching at milkweed fluff in the air. The very attempt sent it out of reach. This kind of thing happened more with age. Sarah was seventy-five. She had lived many thousands of days, so it was not surprising that scenes from an hour here or a moment there should surface at random. Her memories were beads jumbled loose in a box, unstrung. Everything—people, events, conversations—came and went so fast that only a fraction of the beads were ever stored at all. Few were whole, many cracked; most rolled away beneath pressing, present moments and were gone forever.

A description of friend Molly…
Molly was thought to be nearing ninety, a benevolent crone schooled in forestry, herbs, an gardens, a lifelong environmentalist, stooped and white-haired, with pink scalp showing at the crown of her large head. Her halo of white fluff inevitably brought to mind dandelion seeds, delicately spoked before the breezes carried them off. Molly had been big once, before the decades had shrunk her. Her broad knuckly hands were scarred and gnarled with use, but elsewhere her skin was heavy old silk, fine-lined and softly folded, bearing no spots or stains. She must have prized her rose white skin, the way she always covered it with long gauzy garments and broad hats in hot weather. It was her only outward beauty.

Thoughts on a gathering…
Everyone came, family and friends from Vermont and all over the country. Then they left. Sarah pictured the house swelling up with a deep intake of air, drawing tiny, weeping people in with its breath and then blowing them out mournfully to zigzag in the stinging cold. The inhalation held her aloft; the exhalation gave her some brief peace in its wake.

On grief…
Grief slipped away, only to attack from behind. It changed shape endlessly. It lacerated her, numbed her, stalked her, startled her, caught her by the throat. It deceived her eye with glimpses of Charles, her ear with the sound of his voice. She would turn and turn, expecting him, and find him gone. Again. Each time Sarah escaped her sorrow, forgetful amid other things, she lost him anew the instant she remembered he was gone.

Sarah, reflecting on aging…
Sarah took in the evidence of age not knowing whether to laugh or cry. How many girls and women she had been—she carried a multitude inside who shared only memory and character traits. I am a memory, she suddenly thought. And half the time I can’t tell what’s real from what I’ve made up. She slid her nightdress on and felt as if some other Sarah’s head emerged through the satin edging the neckline. As she buttoned the yoke, pushed up the loose sleeves, and brushed her teeth and hair, she had the odd feeling that some brand-new piece of her singular, shifting, multitudinous self had bumped lightly into place, moving the others making more sense of the whole—the irreducible, authentic Sarah, who weathered perpetual change and yet persisted. More would happen to her. She wasn’t finished yet.

A slice of daylight…
Tess helped her set the table. The late-day sun slanted in, lighting up the linens and place settings. Points of light caught on glasses, flatware, and ceramic glazes; the whole table glittered. Outside, fall color had burst wide open. Each year it was sudden, surprising, and new.

Sarah Lucas is a character who will live with me for some time. How often, of late, have I looked in the mirror and wondered just who that person staring back at me could be? How often, of late, have memories crowded in, demanding their space in my present? How often, of late, have I feared aging and inevitable separations? Sarah brings all of these fears and questions full circle, redefines her sense of self, and convinces that in the aftermath of inconsolable loss, life does go on…not the same, maybe not perfectly, but in some ways better.

The cover of Every Last Cuckoo beckoned, and I stepped inside the Vermont world of Sarah and Charles Lucas and emerged richer for having known them.

4.5/5 (General Fiction Scale)
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
277 pages

Dedication: For my mother, Elizabeth Hardy Maloy, and her mother, Bessie Watson Hardy, my first storytellers. For my aunt, Ann Foster Hardy, my inspiration for Sarah.


Les said...

This sounds like such a wonderful book. I especially like the passage on grief. That last sentence is so very true.

Nan - said...

Excellent review! How great that the book lived up to that beautiful cover. I'm going to save your review, and I definitely want to read the book.