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BOOK REVIEW

Transcending the mundane in “Rabbit Hutch”

In Tess Gunty’s debut novel, studying the mystics in affordable housing.

Andrew Testa/NYT

Hildegard of Bingen had little to say about human connectivity, being more concerned with the divine. But the spirit of the 12th-century mystic runs through “The Rabbit Hutch,” uniting and celebrating the disparate misfit residents of the low-rent apartment complex of the same name in Tess Gunty’s transcendent debut novel.

Initially identified only by their apartment numbers – C12, C10, C8 – the inhabitants of La Lapinière Affordable Housing Complex (the complex’s absurd formal name) at first appear doomed to isolation. A young mother not only cannot bond with her baby, she is afraid to tell her husband about the weird fixation she fears marks her as a maternal failure. On the floor below a much older couple argues about how to respond to a perceived encroachment, playing out a power dynamic that has clearly rankled for decades, while a lonely soul in C2 who has been disciplined at work consoles herself with maraschino cherries. Bogged down in their misery, they are largely unaware of the brilliant and troubled young woman who has moved into apartment C4.

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The newcomer, a petite bleached blonde who goes by the name of Blandine Watkins, is content with that anonymity. Noting “[n]obody can break into you if you break out of your body first,” the independent 18-year-old reads about the “She-Mystics” obsessively, seeking a Hildegardian revelation; she “wants to transcend herself, wants to crawl out of the grotesque receptacle of her body.” While she will briefly achieve what her beloved mystics call “the Transverberation of the Heart,” along the way she will also break through her neighbors’ barriers, igniting the potential, at least, for change.

In this compelling and startlingly beautiful book, the Rabbit Hutch, with its grinding poverty and “walls so thin you can hear everyone’s lives progress like radio plays,” is as much a character as its residents, the domestic troubles within symptomatic of their small Midwestern city, Vacca Vale. Ranked No. 1 on “Newsweek’s baffling heartless list of ‘Top Ten Dying Cities’,” the fictional Rust Belt metropolis is a sad and desperate place, abandoned by its one industry, an auto manufacturer, years before, and soon to lose its sole public park in a poorly conceived redevelopment plan.

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When Blandine joins the Rabbit Hutch, she appears to be another Vacca Vale casualty. Intelligent and well read, the strangely beautiful teen has nonetheless dropped out of St. Philomena’s, the city’s one private high school, where she was a promising scholarship student, and aged out of the foster system. Angry and aimless, she works as a waitress in a café that serves “avant-garde pie” in flavors like “lavender lamb” and “banana charcoal” and shares an apartment with three other former foster children, now young men. That they will fall for her seems fated — “Maybe it’s because she’s the only girl. Maybe we were just bored,” one recalls. Their misguided efforts to prove their love just as Blandine attempts to save the one untouched part of Vacca Vale bring about the cataclysm that opens the book, beginning the countdown that will, more or less, explain it all. Along the way, we are also treated to the life story of a former child star, beloved by the many fans of her long-running sitcom who are unaware of her rampant narcissism; the star’s delusional adult son, who plots a bizarre vengeance for an imagined slight; a charismatic teacher from St. Philomena’s, and various other lost souls.

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Gunty weaves these stories together with skill and subtlety. The details of Blandine’s traumatic history, for example, are slipped in via a very few well-chosen details: from her mother’s “final tablet of oxycodone” and her father’s “orange jumpsuit” to the implications of abuse (she “never had sex on purpose … before”). When she is ensnared in yet another exploitative situation, it is presented as it happens, from both sides, with an assumption of innocence and inevitability that makes the final kicker — delivered via text message — all the more biting.

In the spirit of Vacca Vale, Gunty’s imagery focuses on the detritus of society, with recurring, often disturbing images. A mouse killed in a trap in one chapter is echoed by a woman’s hair, “the color of mouse fur,” the next. People are similarly disposable: “she was fragile and vulnerable. A cracked iPhone.” And yet there is hope — a peregrine falcon has nested in the church — and humor as, somehow, life and nature prevail. An injured goat survives to become an Internet sensation; three peregrine chicks with “eyes both frightened and murdery” thrive on a live-feed “Falcon Cam.” And Blandine, an unlikely linchpin, brings the divine down to earth.

THE RABBIT HUTCH

By Tess Gunty

Knopf, 352 pages, $28

Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.

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