Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

from the author's website

In undertaking a my little New Year's resolution to read 52 book, I expected a fair number of lousy books. And I've learned that writing about several weeks worth of mediocre or merely good one can sap some of the joy from writing. I'm sure that's why bad reviews are often funniest- what else is there really to say?

But writing a review is easy when the book is brilliant. And Heidi W. Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is brilliant. The semi-autobiographical 2010 debut novel is about a girl of mixed race, her mother Danish and her father an African American GI, struggling to find her place in the world. Race is the most obvious theme here, closely followed by alcoholism, sexuality, and despair. In most of its handlings of these themes Girl feels like a first book- too often ham handed in tackling the issues head on.

Still, it's hardly a surprise that Barbara Kingsolver chose Girl as the winner of the 2008 PEN/Bellwether prize for a novel addressing social issues; the novels chapters rotate narrators in precisely the way of Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible.

Where Girl is transcendent is in its dialogue, and in the characters revealed through the dialogue. The three central characters for Durrow are the eponymous Girl, Rachel; a neighborhood boy who saw her fall, Jamie; and a friend of the girl's mother, Larrone.

Rachel's mother leaped from the roof of her apartment building with her children in her arms, or she was pushed off, or she was forced to jump, and only Rachel survives. Jamie almost sees them fall. Larrone comes to their apartment to try to make sense of what has happened. Between the three of them, they unravel a mystery of a mother's emotions. I don't know that there's a word to describe the brokenness of Rachel's mother- there is a nexus between madness and love, despair and faith. What I love most about Girl is how it unfolds. This is a murder mystery with the pacing of a fable.

Rachel's first several chapters are magical, poetic, filled with the grand leaps of logic that only a small child can make. They rank among the best written words I've read this year. And as Rachel grows up in  a black neighborhood in Portland, we get to see her transform her language. As she learns to speak (and act) in ways meant to assimilate, she fails to assimilate precisely because the choice does not come naturally to her.

Book 40 of my book-a-week challenge.

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