By Rae Padilla Francoeur
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“And the Dark Sacred Night,” by Julia Glass. Pantheon, New York, April 2014. 416 pages. $26.95
Julia Glass’s new novel, “And the Dark Sacred Night,” tells many stories at once. What happens when a man in his early 40s decides to seek the father he never knew? What happens when he, like a missing puzzle piece, takes his place amid his extended, blended family? How many lives are changed? How are they changed? And how did it happen in the first place that Kit never knew his father?
Glass, who lives in Massachusetts and won the National Book Award for fiction in 2002 for “Three Junes,” manages a deft juggling act, with people and their stories, present and past, all in play at the same time.
Kit and Sandy have been married for more than a decade when they have twins, now 10 years old. Kit, who teaches art history with a specialty in Inuit art, has been unemployed for a while. He takes care of the kids and the house while Sandy works as a design landscaper. Kit is quietly running out of hope and Sandy is noisily running out of patience. He must leave, seek information about his father and attempt to get to the bottom of his paralysis.
At Sandy’s insistence, Kit embarks on a drive-about, wending his way from their home in New Jersey to his adopted father’s place in Vermont. Jasper operates a sporting goods shop and gives skiing lessons. He has a team of sled dogs and is certified to rescue hikers and skiers lost or injured in the mountains. In other words, he’s competent and resourceful. And, as a bonus to this novel, he’s smart and insightful.
Jasper’s ex-wife, Daphne, is Kit’s mother. Kit hopes that Jasper will know more about his father than Daphne will reveal. Daphne, a talented cello player who, because of the unplanned pregnancy, ditches her dream to play with a city orchestra and teaches music. She leaves Jasper to marry the principal at her school when Kit is in his late teens.
Though Daphne made Jasper promise never to reveal what he knew about Kit’s father, he does eventually put Kit in touch with Lucinda, his father’s mother. Lucinda and Zeke, a Vermont senator, had three children. Their son Malachy was gay and died of AIDS 20 years earlier. And Malachy, known as Mal, was the man who fathered Kit.
Glass moves the story from Vermont, with its icy roads and fierce snowstorms, to Provincetown where a hurricane bears down. She sets scenes in New Jersey and New York City, in barns and bedrooms and beaches and lakefronts at midnight. The details, fine and carefully wrought as silk threads, interweave to create something not unlike the cashmere blanket Daphne gives one of her Provincetown hosts. Fenno nursed Mal as he succumbed to AIDS. The musical score, Mozart’s “A Little Night Music,” is woven into the blanket. “I just love the idea of wrapping oneself in music on a cold night,” says Daphne. And family, like cashmere, can — at certain remarkable moments — embrace with a warmth and gentleness that sustains life. These moments are certainly Glass’s most triumphant renderings.
Jasper, with his moral dilemmas — should he tell Kit what Daphne asked him not to tell? — and his goodness, functions as the warm and loving heart of this story. Ironic, because Jasper’s “ticker,” as he calls it, is not what it used to be. Though many likable and complex characters might claim this leading role, Jasper emerges as the most beautifully revealed. It’s no surprise that Kit, in the end, comes to understand the steadfast fathering Jasper offers.
Glass ably introduces characters well into her long and winding story. She shifts from one era to another to yet another without confusing the reader. She uses details that may seem extraneous and writes scenes, that while interesting, might seem superfluous. Rest assured — everything has purpose. Glass’s ability to bind the reader to the page with underlying, low-level tension keeps us reading to the many points of discovery.
Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.
Book Notes: Julia Glass weaves intricate family tale
By Rae Padilla Francoeur