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Book Review

‘The House at Belle Fontaine’ by Lily Tuck

In her second story collection and eighth book, Lily Tuck delivers 10 evocative stories of beautiful language and masterful economy that explore the emotional terrain of failing marriages and lost lives set amid the far-flung backdrops of Antarctica, Bangkok, and Lima, as well as domestic locales closer to home. With each story in “The House at Belle Fontaine,” Tuck’s unflinching eye to detail and faithful ear for dialogue bring to life the brutal, the tragic, and the melancholy.

There are elderly characters alone and isolated during their twilight years, and younger characters adrift after suffering irrevocable acts of violence. Not surprisingly, all of the stories were previously published in respected literary journals, such as The American Scholar and The Yale Review. Also not surprising is Tuck’s National Book Award, in 2004 for her historical epic novel, “The News From Paraguay.”

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This impressive collection begins with the title story about a restrained relationship between a 92-year-old French country gentleman and his tenant, a young American single mother named Ella, who rents a small house on his expansive estate in northern France. Though the two characters spend an evening alone together eating dinner and watching a television show, they are largely lost in their own thoughts, memories, fears, and desires.

Despite this distance, fleeting moments of vulnerability unexpectedly arise during the narrative. Tuck writes toward the end of the story: “In the dark, Monsieur Rossier gropes for the switch by the door. When he finds it, the room is filled with bright, white light that makes Ella squint. She glances over at Monsieur Rossier, who is standing by the door, and he looks tired and ill. His face is gray and his eyes are hidden behind a film of water, age and grief.”

“Ice” charts the disquieting days and nights of a long-married couple, Maud and Peter, on an Antarctic cruise for retired professionals. “Mountains rise stark and desolate on both sides of the channel; already there does not look to be room for people,” writes Tuck. “Above, the evening sky, a sleety gray, shifts to show a little patch of the lightest blue. Standing on deck next to her husband, Maud takes it for a good omen — the ship will not founder, they will not get seasick, they will survive the journey, their marriage more or less still intact.” Decades of unhappiness float subtly underneath the surface while the formidable landscape animates Maud’s ongoing interior turmoil regarding her husband’s loyalty and love toward her.

In other stories, fatal car wrecks and brutal rapes serve as the narrative engines to these sad tales. As a testament to Tuck’s talent, these stories don’t ever get overwhelmed by the dramatic plot turns; instead, she uses the poignant episodes to inform the unmoored loss and quiet grief of her people. In “My Flame,” the point of view fluidly shifts amid the tight constellation of characters during different times of their lives to create a seamless nonlinear narrative about a 14-year-old niece who is being seduced by her older, charismatic uncle.

In “Pérou,” a wealthy family flees Paris in 1940 during World War II with their baby and young nanny, Jeanne, who leaves behind her family in a village in Brittany. Jeanne’s dislocation is further compounded by the multiple sexual assaults committed by the part-time driver for the family in Lima. “Pérou” is the only story told in the first person in this collection, and Tuck skillfully uses the innocent voice of Jeanne’s young charge almost as an omniscient narrator telling the story of Jeanne’s miseries with both distance and compassion.

These striking, compact narratives are reminiscent of the exquisite short stories of Edith Pearlman (most recently of “Binocular Vision”). Both writers’ works feature an agile economy and a rich complexity that magnetically draw in the reader. And, we become intimate witnesses to these private lives falling apart and, in some cases, coming back together.

S. Kirk Walsh, a fiction writer in Austin, Texas, can be reached at skirk.walsh@gmail.com.
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