Melissa Ussery Intintolo
Confinement By Carrie Brown Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2004 352 pages; $24.95 hardcover
Rose’s Garden, Carrie Brown’s startling debut in 1998, opened a world not unfamiliar to readers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: angels walking about with abandon, memory masquerading as the present, and events of Biblical proportion, in this case, a flood, seeming commonplace. Throughout, her prose shimmered with love and loss, and even the most difficult situations–death of a lifelong partner, and the ending of life anticipated–were treated with grace and even rejoicing.
There is no such joy in Confinement. Firmly grounded in one of the ugliest moments of the 20th century, it is a dark and unrelenting gem, with tight, airless prose that prances through time mimicking the disorder of a mind attempting to bear something that can’t be borne. The first two chapters are a tour de force: Brown trudges relentlessly through the awful truth of memory with the precision of hammers in windows on Kristallnacht.
Arthur Henning, an Austrian Jew, narrowly escapes genocide in 1938 through the kindness of rescuers, the Lehmans, by taking haven in America with a wealthy family who need a chauffeur. Unfortunately, he knows how to sew, not drive. But he will learn, because it will help him save the only family he has left, his small son, Toby. As Arthur’s mind implodes in time, we see his friends’ mangled bodies on the streets of Vienna, his wife and infant daughter massacred. He has survived, but just barely, and every day, we see him tread in uncomfortable insecurity–will he be able to satisfy his employer? Will he provide for his son? Why has he been allowed to live when his beloved wife and daughter were destroyed? Arthur’s description of these events is all the more horrifying simply because of his reticence, the confinement of his emotions.
He lands in suburban Connecticut in a seemingly idyllic landscape of wealth and ease. He is permitted to live in the caretaker’s cottage on the grounds of the mansion. The first few weeks are blighted by weather, a snowstorm that keeps everyone inside their well-adjusted cocoon of affluence. We are allowed to see the host family up close: Lee Duvall, well-established and successful businessman, his wife Nina, whose elegance is haunted by alcohol abuse, and their daughter, Agatha, a remarkably well-adjusted child, who endures in this difficult and dysfunctional family because of the close family of servants.
Brown renders her characters in sharp and precise prose. During a party Mr. Duvall describes his guests with remorseless disgust to Arthur, who, hereto-fore had revered his employer.
“The Van Dunns … He’s the short fat one with the ugly
wife in unpleasantly revealing red by the front door…. Nick
and Holly Morgan … He’s the tall one with the scarlet cummerbund,
blotto blond wife on his arm and falling off her shoes.”
He proceeded to rattle off…. His descriptions of his guests
riddled with dislike and scorn and a knowledge that made Arthur feel
afraid of him.
Arthur’s fears are further realized when Mr. Duvall sends him on a personal errand: to drop off his 17-year-old pregnant daughter at a home for underage pregnant girls, Breakabeen. After the task is accomplished, Mr. Duvall barely acknowledges that his daughter could have been frightened and fearful during such an overwhelming experience. Arthur again learns something about his employer and his cruel reticence.
Confinement, a term conveying the more archaic form of childbirth, a lying-in, defines the home for wayward girls. It is an opportunity for Brown to shine humor and her considerable descriptive gifts on a little known icon of the first half of the 20th century. In a small town inhabited by mostly small-minded bigots, this deteriorating mansion is owned by its former housekeeper who has had an illegitimate child by her employer and chooses to serve girls in the same situation. Pleasanter than most facilities of its time, the girls are as well prepared as possible for this lift transformation. Considering all the situations of confinement in this novel–Arthur’s untenable and immutable memories of the past, Nina Duvall’s addiction, Agatha’s former life that looks like a normal, happy home but is a gross manifestation of an awful truth–the home in which these girls are cloistered is the least restrictive. Brown’s description of this setting is congenial: “Saturday mornings were free time for the girls at Breakabeen. You came upon them all over the house, reclining in chairs with their feet on the damask-covered ottomans with their Persian fringe, or stretched out on window seats, cushions behind their heads, books fanned facedown over their chests, their bellies baking in the sunshine.”
Arthur’s love for Agatha is as complete as that for his son Toby. Nevertheless, it is revealed as something less than Fatherly while he visits her at Breakabeen. In one of the most moving passages from this novel, he accepts his plight-a love for Agatha that can never be acknowledged I just as he has accepted the other strictures of his existence:
How much can a man love a woman? Arthur marveled,
looking back at her. Is this what it was like, to fall in love
after a lifetime? He was forty-nine years old, a wife, a war,
a dead baby behind, buried in his past. He bad thought he loved
Anna–no he had loved Anna. But it had never contained so much pain
as this. They had been happy, and then she had died. It had never
been so sad, so impossible. He had never been so aware that he
was already too old, that the one thing that seemed to hold out
the promise of happiness was never to be his.
But the thing he has feared the most–that his son Toby fathered Agatha’s illegitimate child–becomes increasingly clear. He knows the consequences: his employer cannot retain him in such a situation and he will be abandoned, and he cannot deal with the fact that his son has bedded his life’s love. In a moment of disgust and sadness, he lashes out at his son, who flees his home forever.
Serendipity takes a step at this point in the novel, and, because of Brown’s craft, not unlike the miraculous coincidences that pepper the works of Garcia Marquez, we too believe. Arthur, while driving down the street, sees Agatha’s illegitimate child nearly ten years later. He knows he is their child because he resembles Toby at that age. From there, Arthur must figure out a way through this mess: how can he know the child? What are his rights? Who should he tell and how?
Brown’s novel is an exercise of restraint within limits. Never is she more compelling than when speaking of love: Arthur’s love for Agatha; for his son, Toby, perhaps as forever lost as his dead wife and child; for his grandchild. We are to understand at the end that Arthur loves this child as much as anyone in his restrained life, even though he doesn’t know him, because he is letting him go: “That would be enough to tell Agatha. The people who had taken him loved him.”
Brown’s craftsmanship–her understanding that setting makes this story-is unparalleled. Few authors can juggle the war-torn hell that was Vienna during WWII with the pristine prison that was suburban New England by inserting a simple image, oranges: “One had split open on the floor mat, and it came up wet and sweet-smelling in his hand, with the scent of rot.” Recalling M.F.K. Fisher’s wartime reveries of tangerines on the radiator, people who lived through this time remember with wonder how the small things, such as oranges, meant hope and promise of the New World. Brown connects Arthur to the present with this metaphor and starts unraveling his turbulent memories.
Even though this work is unsettling to follow as Arthur’s mind bends in time, the setting, and Brown’s precise description, anchor the reader in place. Without Brown’s commitment to setting–how it creates mood and establishes atmosphere, how it paces a story that outpaces itself in time–this book might be unbearable. But because of it, the reader will find it an extraordinary and rewarding read.
COPYRIGHT 2004 The Carolina Quarterly
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group