New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

Indelible Childhood Experience

George Minot, author of a new book, The Blue Bowl, is the third of one family’s seven siblings to write about their childhood and its central event, the death of their mother. The family lived by the ocean, on the North Shore of Boston and on North Haven in Penobscot Bay, Maine. Their father was withdrawn, depressed, and alcoholic. He seems to have interacted little with his offspring. Their mother was Catholic, more expressive, and less inhibited; not a Boston Brahmin like her husband. She died while the kids were growing up, when her car collided with a train near their home in Manchester-by-the-Sea.

Each of the books describing this family’s history is thinly-veiled autobiography packaged as fiction. The first was Susan Minot’s Monkeys. Second oldest in the family, she published her book in 1986. In 1999, the youngest Minot, Eliza, published her version, The Tiny One. And now George, the first son and fourth child, joins them.

Susan’s and Eliza’s writing captured the intense childhood experience of a dysfunctional family and devastating loss by emphasizing the child’s perspective of those events. No adult analysis mediates for us why things were what they were, let alone the emotional impact. In Susan’s book, you can wonder if the mother’s accident wasn’t accidental. Details suggest an unsatisfying marriage and a long shadow cast by alcohol abuse. With nothing explicit, however, that interpretation would be ours as readers. The terse ending, with the father and children dispersing the mother’s ashes in the Fox Islands Thorofare, has a tone of uncertainty about the future: “no one with the slightest idea, when they raised their heads and looked around, of where to go next.”

Eliza personalizes her version a great deal more. Attempting to preserve her mother’s reality, she remembers every experience involving the two of them; the book reads as a compendium. It is an effort that reminds one of childhood tactics, like having a “security blanket” that allows one to feel connected to a certain reality even when that is physically absent. Eliza concludes her story with what seems to be her way of coping: “I’ll look for Mum. And I’ll find her. I’ll look hard. I wish I didn’t have to. But I do. It makes my eyes like watcher eyes. I’ll always try to see. I’ll get better and better at it every day. I’ll watch and remember. I’ll look. Because it keeps life from getting lost and wondering where she went. Because it keeps life.”

Given that sense of relentless searching, it isn’t surprising to see the direction her brother’s book, The Blue Bowl, goes. George shows us bereft children as adults. His main characters are two brothers in a Minot look-alike family, in their 30s now. The narrator and “Simon” seem lost; churlish, self-centered and immature. Simon is unable and unwilling to make a life for himself, instead angrily and pathetically mooching off family and friends, remaining in perpetual dependency. In an absurd situation, he sneaks back into the family home, after asking and being forbidden to do so by his father. There he lives only barely hidden, never openly interacting with his father yet seeming to invite discovery. He feels completely undetected and invisible. It suggests a replication of childhood experience, the sense he was never noticed by his father as a child. It is during this visit that the father falls on a flight of stairs and dies and Simon is charged with murder. Ironically, now Simon gets lots of attention, the tabloids gleefully detailing a blue blood gone bad. Is this a way of seeing the family publicly humiliated, for both the fictional and real readers, suggesting that any vestiges of respect for that background are questionable, undeserved? While the plot device of a courtroom drama seems intended to expose and explore relationships, the book never gets off the ground, even with a surprise ending.

If there is a point to reading this book, it would seem to be pondering that some or all of the following seem possible as outcomes of this kind of family tragedy: unresolved and still powerful grief, blame, and anger; struggles with depression and substance abuse; feelings of being unwanted and unloved. This story suggests the father was responsible for the mother’s death, seeing her driven to suicide by his drinking and detachment. What the book ends up illustrating, in a remarkably non-literary way thanks to the author’s stream of (sometimes delusional) consciousness, is the indelible impact of childhood experience. There are so many problems with The Blue Bowl, however, it is difficult to recommend the investment of time or money in this book. Sadly, it reads as if it were unedited and didn’t benefit from a more objective literary critique as to how well it tells a story. While immersion in his raw emotions may have been therapeutic for Minot, he doesn’t make us want to share that particular space and reality with him.

Tina Cohen writes on Vinalhaven, where she lives part of the year.