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A hallmark of Carol Guess’s fiction has always been her haunted characters set adrift in a poignant landscape of lyrical prose. Homeschooling is no exception, where these hauntings are both literal and symbolic.
Set in a suburb of Seattle next to the Nordic Heritage Museum, Eleanor tells us in the opening paragraph of the book, “the neighborhood was haunted by sea widows and girls whose Santa Lucia candles had set their yellow hair on fire.”
It is in this ethereal setting that we are plunged into the burgeoning relationship between the misanthropic lesbian artist and her conservative Christian neighbor, Laurel, who homeschools her six children. Eleanor finds herself intrigued by Laurel, an odd juxtaposition of good Christian wife and tomboy. Convinced Laurel is unhappy with her life choices, Eleanor becomes obsessed with saving her.
What’s most compelling about the book are those metaphorical hauntings that permeate the women in this novel; love, liberty, an appendage. What we learn about these women from their own words, each in turn having their say, is minimal and must be intuited by their observations about other people or their reflections on their own histories.
Often, the most illuminating revelations about one character come from another, raising the question of whose perspective to trust among shifting narrators, especially when a surprising new voice enters in the conversation.
Guess plunges the reader in the complicated world of the inner self and challenges that reality with the varied perspectives she presents. While we come to understand each woman is broken in some way that’s intrinsic to their being, we also begin to see their own limited awareness of this damage.
The novel is tightly wrapped in the precise language expected of a master poet and flash-fictionista like Guess. Not one to spend her or her reader’s time on the frivolity of fully-fleshed settings, Guess spends her words on enhancing meaning through symbolism and metaphor in entrancing lines like this one: “Golden shearings turned crystalline as a lost limb turned to a ghost sister sending postcards from a dangerous country.”
Nevertheless, Seattle breathes in these pages as if its own entity. Guess’s Seattle is a skyline below “stars on blue paper,” “urban decay beneath the West Seattle Bridge,” “orange boxcar elevators graceful as cranes”—its coffeehouses, bayside parks haunted by the wronged, sordid bars and mystical artwork floating overhead.
At 120 pages, most readers will meet the last paragraphs with a mixture of satiety and sadness. Like the language, Homeschooling comes wrapped in neatly packaged finality, though true to life and the nature of relationships.
Readers are left with their fair share of nagging questions, narrator reliability aside. With all its robustness packed in so few pages, many will find themselves hungry for more of Guess’s haunting world and prosaic beauty.
By Carol Guess
Hardcover, 9781848631045, 120pp