In the opening pages of Kirstin Allio’s debut novel, Garner (Coffee House Press, 232 pages ), young Frances Giddens is found by the town’s postman drowned in Blood Brook. It is 1925, and the town of Garner, New Hampshire is struggling financially. The postman, Willard Heald, is obviously troubled by Frances’s death even as he labors over his handwritten history of the town. His wife watches him with suspicion, for she suspects him of having harbored a crush on the spirited teenager. The summer boarders staying at the Giddens family’s house remain silent, as do those who lift her body out of the stream. No one dares utter the questions lurking in the reader’s mind: Did Frances kill herself or was she murdered? And why?
The circumstances surrounding Frances’s death constitute the bulk of Allio’s subtly moving novel. Told in fragments that often read like prose poems, the narrative is not straightforward and instead skirts the truth like a wary coyote. As Frances writes in her diary, “secrets . . . are the shadows of the plain truth between us.” Although Frances’s life and death form the center of the novel, it is Heald who is its gatekeeper. All outside communication must pass through Heald, who takes it upon himself to decide whether someone should receive or post a specific letter. He hides truth from the town – and the reader – in a way no one else can. The residents are ignorant of his power, and they treat him almost as an outsider, someone quiet who sits on the edge of their gatherings, a solitary man. Heald’s stealth ends up being both his strength and his undoing.
Allio’s prose can make for demanding reading since no word or image is wasted, and she leaves the reader to piece together the story from the poetic details she provides. The starkness of 1925 New Hampshire, even during its most bountiful season, preys upon the characters. Some passages are cryptic as Allio splices moments and quotes from different times to punctuate another scene, but whether the author is describing a woodland or a person or even a roundabout truth, she writes with gorgeous precision. Readers will be well rewarded by sticking with her, to see where the meandering journey through the roads and paths of Garner will take them.
Readers of unconventional literary fiction will find much to admire in this unsettling debut novel. Highly recommended for serious readers.
—Debbie Lee Wesselmann, author of Trutor and the Balloonist (1997) and Captivity (2008).
The postman used the roads and the woods alike and bareheaded on a day that provided such weather. If he came upon Frances it was always she who saw him first and he who, knowing himself watched, was pleasantly startled. A tree became a girl, he allowed himself to wonder.
Today, the stream was full with a sudden rain after a dry spell but he was a man of all weathers. Perhaps this was how he came to be postman. He dressed for modesty and economy in the same layers June and January. In spring the mud was clean and deep so as could heal a wound and if the postman had ever put his mouth to a gash in a maple tree and sucked the sap he told no one.
At the edge he held a sapling for balance, put a hand in, dabbed his forehead.
At first he thought it was an odd reflection from a reddish leaf, or a brick-colored stone on the bottom. Then he leaned in closer and it was surely blood for it curled and sank through the water. He thought to himself, it’s one of those thin-skinned summer boarders who’s gone and torn the hook out and then thrown the fish back in the water. It was only that much blood, as would come from a fish’s mouth, but it was strange, he could smell it. Too rich for fish blood. It was mammal. Once he caught the scent it clung to the back of his throat like sulphur. He tried to clear his throat of the viscous sweetness. Cloying, like the smell of a dead animal lodged where he’d insulated with horse hair and some sawdust beneath the cold floor of the bedroom.
The postman lifted his eyes across the stream half expecting to catch a cowed fisherman in city attire and ill-fitting boots borrowed from Frances’s father. Instead he saw Frances. “Hello!” he called before he could stop himself. She floated on her back, her undergown swept aimlessly about her. Her long hair was unwoven, the light green of willow wands through the water. Where had she left her clothes, then?
He felt the way he always felt when he saw her. Braced himself against the sapling, a prickling like the little sharp hairs when his wife shaved the back of his neck in the kitchen.
The curtains of the forest would be tightly drawn and then suddenly she would issue forth, throwing the green gauze wide, not the least bit bashful. He would crash forward as if to catch her at her new game and however she might explain herself would delight him. She might say, “Why Mr. Heald, you’ve caught me bathing. A bath in live water has countless benefits.” And she would break off, as if distracted by the very air itself, fragments of light and shadow.
The forest rang as if he’d hurled a stone instead of spoken. He broke off a dead branch for the crack it provided. There. A hand in the water revived him.