Bounding toward Antonya Nelson

How is it I’ve missed the work of Antonya Nelson? She’s written nine books of fiction, and Bound, her newest novel, is the first I’ve read. Before Bound, I wouldn’t even have recognized the name Antonya Nelson. That’s a testament to the glut of published books in the marketplace. It’s a tsunami of titles, burying some of the best literary authors, whom  readers then don’t realize exist, depriving them of  great reading opportunities. Yes, so many books, so little time to find them all.

I purchased Bound after I’d read several comments about Nelson’s talent with the written word, her expertise with rhythm and styling. Michael Chabon’s back-of-the-book blurb says, “She’s absolutely one of my favorites…and I envy the reader who has yet to discover her work.”

I enthusiastically second that, after experiencing Nelson’s writing and storytelling for the first time. Within the first few pages of Bound, I was enthralled by her use of words — intelligent, unadorned and meaningful. Her sentences create universes with uncomplicated ease. One doesn’t rush through them but reads them slowly to enjoy the keen observations. And then, there are the characters, so realistically drawn you understand them immediately — who they are in this life and the behaviors that define them. Such as Bound’s Grace Harding, the mother whom protagonist Catherine Desplaines daily visits in the nursing home. She’s “struck by stroke” and no longer able to speak, her damage “a specific cruelty” for this once pontificating professor whose disapproval still derails her adult daughter.

On one of her visits, Catherine finds a letter buried in her mother’s mail informing that Catherine’s childhood best friend Misty Mueller died in a car accident and Catherine is named guardian of Misty’s teenager, Cattie. The notice is a complete surprise, considering Catherine and Misty haven’t communicated for 23 years. This guardianship isn’t legally binding, yet Catherine moves toward considering it while her somewhat indifferent husband of 18 years, Oliver, encourages her to gather all the facts. He’s a successful, self-involved, approaching 70 entrepreneur trying to stay young. Catherine is his third wife, closer in age to Oliver’s estranged daughters than to him, and she’s now — like his previous wives — a victim of Oliver’s addiction to giddy new love: he’s cheating on Catherine with an even younger sweetheart.

This is the stuff of great domestic fiction in the right hands, and Nelson’s definitely dead on. Her insightful interpretations of the things that bind us to one another and our pasts are moving and memorable. One caveat: The story takes place in Wichita during the reappearance of the BTK serial killer. It’s a creepy connection to the aforementioned theme of the things that bind us, considering this real criminal bound, tortured and killed his victims, reigning terror over Wichita for years until he was caught. Especially unsettling is Catherine’s fascination, driving around the city with Grace in the passenger seat to look at the victim’s houses. This is what people do, though, gawk at tragedy, and it lends even more realism to this very rewarding, astutely imagined story.

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