“Carry the One’’ is a brilliant feat of storytelling, a total immersion into a family deeply injured, fractured, wounded in every way by a tragic death that occurs after the last truly happy, free moment in the lives of three siblings: a backyard wedding in rural Wisconsin in the early 1980s. Carol Anshaw takes chances from the first moments of the novel, her fourth book. The plot, which dives in and out of 25 years in the Kenneys’ lives, does not come in neat increments or even chapters that feel the necessity of traditional arc. It’s not “plates spinning in the air,’’ as some writers say, or a “kaleidoscope of scenes.’’ This is more like a series of intricate, perfectly illustrated dioramas called The National History of the Kenney Family After the Accident.
And that could be because Anshaw is also a painter. Her attention to scene is impressive. In that farmhouse where the wedding party is winding down, it’s 1983 and a messy rural artists collective: “A fat fly idled around the open window amid dangling pieces of stained glass. The room sighed out its own smell - a blend of burnt wood and wet clay. Trace elements of blackstrap molasses, tahini, apples, and dirty socks were also in the mix.’’
There’s marijuana on the coffee table, and Carmen, who begins the narrative, knows her brother is high. Carmen is the bride. She’s pregnant, marrying a man she feels companionable toward, but not passionate about. That night, her brother Nick is hooking up with Olivia, taking mushrooms and more, higher and higher. He’s dressed like a bride, Olivia like a groom - a joke. And Alice, their artist sister, is hooking up with her fellow bridesmaid, discovering she’s gay. That night, as Carmen bids farewell to the four, along with another guest, they drive off when they shouldn’t, and Olivia, the driver, hits and kills a 10-year-old girl on the rural road.
Nothing is ever the same for any of them. That premise might seem familiar, but it‘s not in Anshaw’s novel. The voices of the sisters and brother weave in and out not in tandem, but in the tangled, fiercely loving mesh that only siblings share. By making them not sympathetic, by making them singular and observant precisely because of their flaws and self-absorption, Anshaw ensures that readers are carried along on the tide of their voices.
Alice spends her life painting the child, but doesn’t show these pictures for years, even though she’s become a famous artist. Nick feels the most guilty, having let Olivia serve time for the murder, and his attempts to make amends to the dead girl’s family are disastrous, resulting in a broken nose and more shame. He’s brilliant at astronomy, getting into graduate school by 19, but even by the night of the accident, his true love is drugs. Any kind of drugs. Years later, after Olivia has left prison and they are married, he cannot stay away. On a camping trip with her, he ends up where he always does, “in the deserted lot of a defunct Midas Muffler shop. There were three cars waiting, parking lights on, radios laying a drift of melody on the heavy summer night air . . . These strangers were his compadres. Most people think drugs just waste your time and screw up your life. They don’t understand the happiness . . . Drugs have mass and density. Thick and delicious, they fill every crevice inside you.’’
Carmen is the most sympathetic voice, in her life as mother and activist. Her husband leaves her for another woman, and it’s evident that he has never really forgiven her for that night. She takes care of everyone for those decades, and in her we see flashes of wry intense humor, which make her dioramas melancholy and hilarious at the same time. She loses part of an ear in an abortion clinic bombing, and Alice is there to carry her away. They try to save Nick over and over, but he wends his way toward that destructive love of addiction. Carmen meets her second husband, wearing a cashmere sweater and gold chain, in a Proust book group: “He thought Charles Swann should give up on Odette and get out of Paris. Get over being so French. Get his head on straight. Maybe move to New York . . . She knew she signed up for the class mostly to meet someone, but that someone was not Rob. That someone was Ralph Fiennes.’’
But she marries him, and her son Gabe struggles with Rob’s daughter, and Carmen becomes a resigned and loyal woman trying to raise a stepdaughter.
Every secondary and minor character is vividly created in a few brushstrokes of detail and dialogue. The senior Kenney, their pretentious artist father, slides into dementia, and their mother, martyred and annoyed with them, ages hard. Alice’s lovers, Carmen’s children, Olivia, and the parents of the dead girl - all part of one of the most intensely vibrant novels I’ve ever read.
“Alice never had a day she didn’t think about the girl. Everybody, she figured, had to coat the grain of sand in his or her own way.’’ This book is that kind of pearl.Susan Straight’s novel “Take One Candle Light a Room’’ has just been released in paperback. She can be reached at Susanstraight.com.