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Carol Anshaw has, over twenty years, given us a mere four books. But what books they are. Aquamarine, her dazzling 1992 debut novel, imagined three plausible futures for Olympic swimmer Jesse Austin. Seven Moves, 1996, followed therapist Christine Snow’s determined and ultimately revealing search for a lover who has vanished seemingly without a trace. Lucky in the Corner, 2002, tracked the complex, fraught relationship between a daughter and her philandering lesbian mother. Ten long years later, we now have Carry the One (Simon & Schuster), a powerhouse of a novel so brilliant in its continuation of Anshaw’s themes, in the acuteness of her view of the range and idiosyncrasies of human behavior, that we can only wish all the more fervently for books more often from this most rewarding of writers.
The story opens in the aftermath of a wedding that has turned into an orgy of drinking and magic mushrooms, and hot lesbian sex for two women newly discovering each other. Carmen and Matt, the bride and groom, soon wave farewell to a carful of guests they know are intoxicated, a car that drives off into the black night with only its parking lights on. The passengers include Carmen’s brother and sister, Nick and Alice; Alice’s new sex interest, Maude, who is still making out with her in the backseat; and Olivia, Nick’s new girlfriend, the car’s very inebriated driver. “All of them,”Alice will later observe, “in their last hours of making mistakes with small prices.”
The character whose presence imbues Carry the One now makes her single appearance on stage, and she is there for about one second. That final second of her ten years of life is viewed through the eyes of Alice: “The first Alice saw of the girl was not her standing on the side of the road, or even running across it, but already thudding onto the hood of the car. A jumble of knees and elbows, and then her face, frozen in surprise, eyes wide open, huge on the other side of the windshield.”
With the ending of Casey Redman’s brief life, the present and future lives of six people—plus Casey’s poleaxed parents— tumble out of orbit.
Her death not so much hovers over these characters as it seeps in to color in very different ways their choices and behavior and experience over the years. Olivia, in the aftermath of her prison term for felony drunk driving; Alice and Nick in their addictions, physical and emotional:Alice, in a connection to Maude that she cannot seem to sever; Nick, gripped in the machinations and navigations of treatment for a viciously tenacious drug addiction. And bride Carmen, in her fundamental misreading of what her marriage to Matt is and isn’t.
We sit witness to lives that over the next twenty-five years play out against a travelling matte of cultural change that brings constant shocks of recognition. The country’s social activism, the Rwanda massacre, the fall of the Twin Towers; the Reagan presidency and its abortion-clinic wars; Bushes I and II and the hope-filled arrival of Barack Obama. Carmen is drawn into the social wars and Alice, whose life is haunted by her artistic imaginings of Casey, achieves success as a painter along with the expansion of her lesbian horizon. Nick becomes a revered astronomer in spite of himself. We are taken authentically into these lives and professions, and into the cities of Chicago and Amsterdam, and given such richness of detail and historical period that we inhabit not only their lives but their worlds.
The interweaving of their stories, with peripheral people drawn into and caught up in them, gains weight and power with each successive page, ever more compelling, unpredictable, hypnotic, the cross-hatching laid for each reader to parse out and trace back to Casey Redman, always tangible and tragic, always inhabiting their souls and the pages of this novel.
Carry the One appears to be a tale of guilt and recrimination, and it is and is not. Its substantive concern is the complexity of human lives and the healing power of time. In the mind of Olivia, the one character who has most visibly expiated her crime in prison: “Guilt, she discovered early on, was the easiest, the simplest response. Much more complicated was living past guilt, bearing the permanence, accommodating the weight of having done something terrible and completely undoable.”
The forceful impact of the novel is its relevance to most of us. Fortunately, few of us have experienced anything like the tragedy underpinning this story, but virtually all of us have been in some measure broadsided in a crossroads, suffered a death or an event that derailed us, sent our lives inexorably off in a new direction.
The fundamental pleasure of this fully realized novel, and of all of Anshaw’s work, may well be simply basking in the light-filled explorations of a first class intelligence. Basking in a wide, generous, compassionate and unfailingly fresh and interesting view of lesbian lives. Basking in the pleasure of language piercing in its specificity and precision, in the complete mastery of mood and tone and cadence. Most especially in fiction that is the highest of high art.
Let us hope we do not have to wait another ten years for another book from perhaps the finest lesbian writer in America today.
Carry the One
By Carol Anshaw
Simon & Schuster