Friday, August 25, 2006


First Novels

For my first truly book related post, I thought it'd be fitting to look at three books I've read in the past year that have one commonality: they are first novels. There's something exciting about discovering a first novel and really enjoying it. It's often a little like discovering a new friend, and you hope for the acquaintance to grow into a lifetime of pleasurable exchanges: they get your money and your good will, and in exchange they get to continue their work of entertaining and enlightening you.

Loving Soren was the first of the novels I discovered. I'd seen it somewhere (was it actually in Barnes and Noble?) as an employee's recommended reading and thought, "Soren? As in Kierkegaard?" I'd never read about the romances of philosophers, and I found the cover interesting--so I picked it up. (Yes, I'm very deep that way; I do read books by their covers. )

The cover didn't disappoint, and neither did it's innards. I'm a sucker for history and a good romance, and Loving Soren gave me both. It also gave me a digestable introduction to the mind of Soren Kierkegaard, the early 19th century Danish Christian philosopher.

What the hey
, you say?

For those of you who are convinced that philosophy and theology are entirely the arid provinces of dry academics, fit only for those hardy (or foolhardy) men who like to wade out into the deep sand and throw it into one another's eyes--you forget one thing: some chicks think these guys are sexy. Really.

And history is full of these women whose stories are eclipsed by the Grand Statements their men were building out in the Great Sandboxes of their universities, seminaries, pubs and coffeehouses. So I was really curious. Here was a writer who'd taken a potentially mind-numbing subject and turned it inside out: the story was not at all about Soren, but about a real-life Regina, the one-time fiancee of the philosopher who was dumped and then later humilitated in a scandelous and thinly veiled publication of Kierkegaard's, entitled Diary of a Seducer.

It was also, I discovered, a compelling story about a very bright young woman's coming of age and discovery of a god who can't be manipulated for the sake of one's ego, and a god who also supplies sweet healing in the midst of our failures. Too easily this subject could have become a maudelin genre romance with a bit of superficial religious sounding philosophizing thrown in for color, but Regina and Soren's battles are all told with considerable restraint and purpose. And Regina's awakening and sensitivity to Soren's probable bi-polar disorder as well as her father's depression has the authenticity of a young woman who, like many young women, wants to fix all the men around her with prayer and beauty (her own, presumably). The author makes judicious choices in historical detail, and the dialogue is accessible and lively, as well. I was delighted.

As luck would have it, the author, Caroline Coleman O'Neill, was slated to teach at the Glorietta Christian Writers' Conference I attended this past October. So one day I signed up for an appointment to meet with her. She was lovely, and we had a good time talking about the book. (No, it was not an interview.) Just a chat, with coffee. She's quite passionate about good literature that integrates a Christian perspective, and she's willing to do the time to make a great product. From start to finish, it took seven years to write Loving Soren--and her dedication to her research is evident. For an interesting interview with the author about that research process, you might want to visit this link.

If you're wondering where the truly well-written novels are among today's new Christian writers, you'll an find answer in Loving Soren. I hope it's not another seven years until we see O'Neill's writings again.

Another fan of O'Neill's is the Master's Artist's very own Mary DeMuth, who saw her first book published this year. Like O'Neill, her interests lie in a more literary vein, but unlike O'Neill, DeMuth has chosen to write contemporary fiction.

Based in part on her own childhood experience of sexual abuse, Watching the Tree Limbs is the tender tale of a young girl's painful loss of innocence and slow recovery of selfhood, reminiscent of the classic Southern novel--complete with family secrets and dirt-poor living, bigoted town bullies, and eccentric allies.

But the power of the book is not so much in it's atmosphere and attitude, but in its message that what others try their best to distort and destroy, Christ can restore and heal--even if we don't much about that Christ. If you're worried about a heavy-handed read, be assured that DeMuth presents this message with sublety. And it's been gratefully received by many readers who have written to DeMuth about their own experiences with childhood sexual abuse.

DeMuth's own account of the book's publication is that for all the talk about new directions in the CBA, no one would touch the topic of a young girl's rape when she first approached them with the manuscript. But a year later a publisher returned and expressed interest in story. It's an encouraging sign, indeed, that publishers are willing to take works like DeMuth's. There are lovely and memorable details (the tin can lids, for example) throughout, and like O'Neill, DeMuth resists the urge to explain all her character's choices and let the reader experience the novel on his or her own terms.

My only quibble--and it's one that I see so frequently, it's hardly a quirk of this author's--is that DeMuth falls into the trick of allowing the black characters become the moral touchstone of Mara's world, and (for most of the book) the voicebox for a white man who can't speak for himself. There are several different paths I could take to muse on this--is it white guilt? a metonymical tropism? a subconscious habit? But I find it all too often, and invariably in works--whether they're novels or songs or television shows or films--set in the South. What this means to our culture, to Christians, or the world--and whether DeMuth intended anything by this choice--is probably left to another post, and certainly to another day.

This question aside, DeMuth's book is certainly worth your coin. And if you're looking for further developments in the mysteries of Mara's life, look out for Wishing on Dandelions, the follow-up to Watching the Tree Limbs. It'll be out in September. (On a purely personal note, I sincerely hope that a future novel is coming from Mary about her adventures in France.)

And speaking of France... Tomorrow I'll try to post on Tracy Chevalier's The Virgin Blue.

I'm pooped, y'all. Goodnight.

Definitely want to read Loving Soren. Thanks for calling my attention to it.

And I loved Mary's Watching the Tree Limbs.

Great blog, Shanna
I can never get enough book reviews, Shanna. Thanks for writing them! I'll have to read Loving Soren. Also, read my comment on Mary DeMuth's blog post of Aug. 31. I loved Tree Limbs but it was an uphill battle to get the rest of the editorial team to give it a "go." Tough topic, yes, but a brilliant treatment of it!
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