The Storm At The Door by Stefan Merrill Block
Faber & Faber $36.99
This is a curious book, an involving, sometimes wrenching read that has a provenance and context almost as interesting as the work itself. Block has taken the actuality of his grandparents' lives, primarily his grandfather's incarceration at a mental institution and his grandmother's life as she coped with this, dug up what fact he could, then fleshed it out with fiction. So, while you are aware that a high proportion of what you read is invented, because the premise is factual the whole thing seems real, and is more powerful because of it.
This blurring of fact and fiction isn't a deliberate novelistic ploy by someone who has attended too many university creative writing courses: it's a necessity. There's just too much missing to create a fully factual rendering of a remarkable relationship.
And that is the core of the book: what went missing.
The words her husband Frederick wrote with charcoal on the cold floor of solitary at the Mayflower Home for the Mentally Ill are what Block's grandmother Katharine is burning, erasing, killing in 1989 as the book opens. And what he has written is, in a way, what young Block recreates: Frederick's story, his explanation of his bizarre, sometimes drunkenly explained, sometimes unexplainable actions. "Frederick at any moment, could be one or more of many things: malevolent, loving, brilliant, drunk, visionary. The opening of potential selves like first kisses that soon fail to deliver what they seemed to promise."
The Mayflower is a fictional rendering of McLean Hospital, still a leading American institution, and here he encounters poet Robert Lowell (he truly was there, his actions and words are invented). Lowell says: "The shame we have brought we have brought. The injury we have caused we have caused. Why not try to turn that history to art? Why not say what happened?"
Ultimately, what Block does, is rewrite his grandparents' story.
The daily struggle of Katharine, a mother in 1960s Boston raising four daughters while her husband is having an unexplained "rest", her battle with fidelity, her history, is set against Frederick's life in the asylum. The whole thing is exquisitely written, and covers much ground, being at times academically analytical, at others lyrical and romantic.
Ultimately, in a sense, it's a way for Block to make sense of his own finely-tuned sensibilities, and to wonder whether they were inherited. I don't know if he really finds an answer to that. But this written search for redemption and peace is touchingly told.
Michael Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.