Thursday, November 21, 2013

"the night's smother of warmth": inaccurate statements about A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage

A couple of days ago I finished Marly Youmans' beautiful 2012 novel A Death At The White Camellia Orphanage. I come here not to review the book, except to say that it's a wonderful novel and I recommend it to you. I can't review it because not only do I not know how to write a proper review, I'm not sure what to say about the novel. I don't know how to talk about it without diminishing it.

On the surface, Youmans has written a sort of picaresque bildungsroman, the story of a young boy cast adrift into the world to find his way, to have adventures of love and loss, and to learn that the world contains all that is evil and all that is good. And ADATWCO works on that level. The young protagonist, Pip Tatnall, journeys across America and grows from child to young man (or from young boy to older boy, I suppose is more accurate). He solves the mystery of his younger brother Otto's murder and is reconnected with his own family. So the book works very well on the surface level, on the level of "what happens next?" It's a solid tale, quite pleasingly told, and even if Youmans doesn't give us the traditional coming-of-age story arc, the narrative has a satisfying shape to it. No, no: let me rephrase that. Youmans gives us a nontraditional story arc, which surprises and succeeds entirely.

But ADATWCO is more than that. There is a spiritual underpinning to the novel that is perhaps less easy to discuss than the characters, setting and plot, though I would claim this spritual underpinning is by far the more important part of the book. The Christian images pile slowly up and the symbolic net is drawn tighter as the novel progresses, and Youmans' best formal trick--the palindromic structure of important thematic elements--becomes the shape of the entire novel, the theme of the whole work. I'm not sure how much of that to talk about. The first shall be the last. What is low shall be raised high, etc. The Alpha and the Omega. The prodigal son, the Church as home, the Father as father, Mary as mother and home and church, etc. It's all there, all subtle and below the surface. Youmans never browbeats you with her message, and the novel, as I say, or should have said by now, works beautifully on this symbolic level just as it works beautifully on the surface level. It's quite a feat.

Anyway, I'm not sure at all how to talk about this book, because it can be viewed happily from several angles, and I worry that a discussion of the foundation of faith upon which the story of Pip Tatnall is built will be somehow off-putting for potential readers. A Death At the White Camellia Orphanage is not Pilgrim's Progress; it's not didactic or moralistic. It is, however, a deeply moral book, written in gorgeous glittering prose, entirely earthbound in its story and not afraid of poking into the dark corners of real life but also fearlessly--if in a more subtle way--pointing away from that darkness. If wherever God dwells is therefore His temple, then the whole of the universe is a temple, and the temple is filled with both good and evil, yet is entirely holy and we are always in His presence; and so we are always home if we only look up and take note of that fact. That's something, that's some trick. I am sure I mis-state Marly Youmans' themes here. That shouldn't stop you from buying and reading her novel.