Two mysteries shape the narrative of Leah Hager Cohen’s latest novel, “No Book But the World.’’
One is the crime that sets the book in motion, a crime for which Ava Manseau’s brother, Fred, has been arrested, but the exact nature of which is revealed to us only incrementally; the other is some torment, some pain, perhaps sexual in nature, inflicted on that brother in childhood by Ava and her friend Kitty. The nature of this also hovers tantalizingly just beyond our understanding until late in the book.
The novel takes the form of a journal Ava is keeping, a journal in Hager Cohen’s lapidary prose that moves back and forth, from present-day scenes that draw us closer to untangling the novel’s mysteries to Ava’s account of her and Freddy’s childhood.
Their father, Neel Robbins, has founded and run a school based on the principles that governed Summerhill, A.S. Neill’s famously democratic educational experiment. Though Neel’s school has long since been closed, the family still lives on its campus, and its principles guide the way the two children are raised.
Complicating the application of Neel’s philosophy to his own children is that Freddy, the younger of the two, is perhaps autistic, and certainly in any case developmentally challenged. (There isn’t a clear diagnosis because Neel and June, the children’s mother, don’t believe in “the medicalization of personhood,” as one character explains it.)
The notion that Freddy will learn on his own from nature, à la Emile in Rousseau’s famous treatise on education, is increasingly a source of tension between Neel, the believer in that idea, and the more ambivalent June, and the focus of several conversations between them overheard or imagined by Ava. “What if he doesn’t?” June asks Neel. “What if he can’t? . . . He’s not your experiment, your test case. He’s your son.”
Much as Ava loves Freddy, she also resents him and her deep intimacy with him, an intimacy she thinks has marked her. Her anger about this sometimes provokes her to petty cruelty to him and later is part of what drives the games she and Kitty play with him in the woods where they spend much of their time — “beyond reach” of adult supervision, as Ava puts it.
A further family complication for Ava is that from early childhood on, and more pressingly as she grows older, she yearns for normalcy, for freedom from her freedom. With this comes a mostly internalized anger at Neel, at the way in which, while seeming to set her free, he has controlled her choices.
This anger is wonderfully conveyed in an episode in which the family has gone on an outing and stopped to look at some cows in a meadow. Imagining the lines of barbed wire that make up the fence they’re approaching as musical staves, Ava runs her fingers over them. But the top wire is electrified, and it shocks her, painfully. She remains silent about this, and she waits, watching, willing Neel to touch it too.
Even as an adult she feels that her upbringing has left her unsuited for a normal life. There are several scenes in the town where she comes to visit Freddy in jail and to find out what exactly he’s been accused of, scenes in which she becomes aware of the bonds of community among the people around her and of her own exclusion from that possibility. “We must choose between making a man and a citizen,” Neel has said, quoting Rousseau, and his choice for her, she feels, has made her incapable of deep connection with other people.
As information comes to Ava about Freddy’s crime — he’s accused of kidnapping a young boy from the town and taking him into a nearby woods where his bruised, near-naked body is found — Ava keeps returning to her memories of the game she played with Freddy in their woods, a game in which, she suggests to us over and over, something perverse, something dark and shocking was done to him. “I touched you anyway, and you let me . . . I could guide you into the woods . . . Dress you in silks. Cover your eyes. Prick your finger. But I never did that: prick your finger . . . That is one thing we never did.”
The resolution of these multiple and often titillating story strands involves some reversals — it turns out there were many things Ava never did to Freddy — and some narrative legerdemain worthy of Ian McEwan. But the more satisfying resolution for Ava comes through the stories she’s been recording in her journal: about Freddy, about herself, about the people who’ve cared for them and loved them, well and less well. And it’s the well-earned discovery about how that storytelling itself has changed her thinking, her feeling about everything in her life, much more than the sometimes artificially suspenseful plot, that resonates most deeply with the reader.