Saturday, October 29, 2011

Amaryllis in Blueberry

Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum
Gallery Books, February 2011
Trade Paperback, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781439156896

In the stirring tradition of The Secret Life of Bees and The Poisonwood Bible, Amaryllis in Blueberry explores the complexity of human relationships set against an unforgettable backdrop. Told through the haunting voices of Dick and Seena Slepy and their four daughters, Christina Meldrum’s soulful novel weaves together the past and the present of a family harmed—and healed—by buried secrets.
“Maybe, unlike hope, truth couldn’t be contained in a jar. . . .”
Meet the Slepys: Dick, the stern doctor, the na├»ve husband, a man devoted to both facts and faith; Seena, the storyteller, the restless wife, a mother of four, a lover of myth. And their children, the Marys: Mary Grace, the devastating beauty; Mary Tessa, the insistent inquisitor; Mary Catherine, the saintly, lost soul; and finally, Amaryllis, Seena’s unspoken favorite, born with the mystifying ability to sense the future, touch the past, and distinguish the truth tellers from the most convincing liar of all.
When Dick insists his family move from Michigan to the unfamiliar world of Africa for missionary work, he can’t possibly foresee how this new land and its people will entrance and change his daughters—and himself—forever.
Nor can he predict how Africa will spur his wife Seena toward an old but unforgotten obsession. In fact, Seena may be falling into a trance of her own. . . .
My Thoughts:
Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum is set in Michigan and West Africa during the summer and fall of 1976. It is a highly atmospheric novel that follows the highly dysfunctional Slepy family: parents Dick and Seena and their four daughters, the Marys - Mary Grace, Mary Catherine, and Mary Tessa - and Amaryllis, known as Yllis. After their summer in Michigan, Dick decides to take his family to Africa where he will serve as a medical missionary.
The first chapter reveals the end of the novel - when Seena is on trial for Dick's murder in West Africa. Then the narrative goes back to the summer and intertwines scenes from the past and present. The novel is told from the viewpoints of all the Slepys, their elderly neighbor Clara, and a single, final chapter from the viewpoint of the priest, Father Heimdall. Although each character has a unique voice, Meldrum makes an interesting stylistic choice and has everyone but Yllis tell their stories in the present tense, even when they look back on past events. Yllis tells her story in past tense. 
In Amaryllis in Blueberry truth and reality are questioned. Obsessions, imagination, storytelling, and cross cultural myth-making (Greek mythology, African mythology, and Catholic doctrine) are explored. Additionally, we learn that Yllis has synesthesia; she is an emotional synesthete so she sees and feels all the emotions of everyone around her. The Slepy's bring a myriad of emotions and problems with them to Africa where Dick hopes they will find redemption but instead everything escalates out of anyone's control. All of the characters are flawed and it is these flaws that form a basis for their problems. There is also a feeling of distant reserve, a separateness, from all the characters in the novel.
Although it shares some similarities with Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, which apparently turned some readers off, I felt there were enough differences to separate the two novels. In Amaryllis in Blueberry creditability was a little stretched when the Slepy's were in Africa so quickly after Dick's decision and their family is so radically affected immediately upon arrival. Although I accepted it, I will also admit to liking the second half of the novel a bit less than the first. Additionally, since it is set in 1976, I could certainly pick up any cultural references to the time.
Meldrum is a very talented writer and I imagine we can look forward to more well crafted novels with intricately developed characters from her in the future. (The Artist in me must note that the cover of this book is simply gorgeous.)
Very Highly Recommended
Dick is dead. Seena knows this, of course: her husband is dead. Yet she keeps expecting him to barrel in, his enormous, gangling self plodding along, a spectacle unaware that he is one. Was one, she thinks. Was one. Still, she finds herself waiting for him to call out, make some pointless point, make it clear to everyone that he just doesn’t get it.  opening

“What don’t I have to say?” she would like to say. “You want me to admit guilt? I’ll admit it. I came here having little respect for your beliefs and laws and I flouted them willingly. You want me to say I hated my husband—that I wanted him dead so I could be free to love my lover? I’ll say it. You want me to tell you I committed adultery and squandered the welfare of my children for the sake of lust while I spit in God’s face. It’s all true.”
“No,” she says. “I have nothing to say.”  pg. 5-6

Mama named me Amaryllis, right out there in the blueberry field, and when Papa’s mustache quivered after she told him the name, and his eyes took on the glassy, stunned gaze, Mama straightened her long back and stretched her giraffe’s neck and flounced that Mary-hued hair as she pointedly turned away, and Papa knew the name was not negotiable. pg. 9

I myself have an affinity for the name Seena, perhaps because it contains the word “see.” Long before I had any understanding of who I am—what I am—I could see Mama’s instincts were right: I was different, and not just on the surface. I didn’t fit in my family, I didn’t fit in at school. pg. 10

People say joy is infectious, but that’s a myth. It’s melancholy that’s infectious. And sneaky. It skulks about, climbing legs, mounting skirts. It’s particularly active when joy is in the room. Joy shows up, a sort of humming, and melancholy gets the jitters. I’ve seen it time and again. While joy bathes one person— who purrs almost, like she’s been plugged in—melancholy makes the rounds. And those closest in proximity to joy are melancholy’s most likely targets. That’s not to say joy’s humming doesn’t sometimes spread—it does—but melancholy is crafty and determined, while joy spreads mostly when it tries not to. At least when it doesn’t try too hard.
Guilt, in contrast, is tricky to see, smell, hear, because guilt is a mush—a combination of envy and anger, joy and melancholy. And love. But I know guilt. I know the taste of its quivering, shimmering, cloudy, smelly, buzzing self. pg. 11

Yet it seemed to me in that moment there is a painful sort of beauty in seeing things for what they really are. pg. 15
Funny thing was, once Dick had seen Seena's face, he couldn't think of anything else. Not even her neck. Those eyes that at first seemed demonic came to seem like burning-hot suns, exposing parts of him he barely knew. She'd become the perfect woman to him. An angel. The Virgin Mary. pg. 28
He thumbs through the magazines, though page after page of breasts and spread thighs and come-hither looks, until he chooses one set of breasts and spread thighs, one come-hither look. And for the few minutes while he is with this paper girl who is not his wife, he forgets he loves his wife. pg. 35
"We have choices in life. You have choices. You don't have to live your life trapped in a box. You don't have to be the person you've been. Be the person you want to be - the kind of person you admire. Control what you can control." pg. 38
I've come to learn there is a name for what I am....the name I'm referring to is "synesthete," meaning I have synesthesia, from the Greek syn, which means "with," and aesthesis, which means "sensation." pg. 89
We weren't sardines so much as we were popcorn kernels sizzling in hot oil, pressed kernel to kernel to kernel. We could only sizzle this way for so long before one of us cracked. pg. 97
Set up the tripod and the timer and snap a picture of your happy family, being protected by you, this God-fearing father and husband who worships the Virgin Mary. Then hang it up alongside your centerfolds. pg. 197

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