Looking at her website, I see that I've been slow to come to Joan Wickersham. She's been widely published, but my first exposure is her current book, The News from Spain. On first reading, I enjoyed her writing, but didn't slow down enough to savor its true accomplishment. Nonetheless, I recognized this collection of seven stories on a theme, almost like classical music variations, was too good to give it short shrift, so I began it again when work and family havoc had slowed. Immediately, the images and language and artful structuring pulled me in. Here were stories of deceptive delicacy, containing unanticipated power. I am now unequivocally a Wickersham fan.
In simple language, with compelling details, Joan Wickersham gives voice to characters I can believe, and in this literary symphony, they are all dealing with love.
Married nearly thirty years, Susanne and John are two years into the struggle of overcoming John's night of infidelity. Barbara and Barnaby are marrying in middle age, after years of platonic courtship. Wickersham reveals much about these four old friends, and about the resonance of her entire program of stories, as she narrates their day-before-the-wedding experiences. In the end, Barnaby and Susanne take a midnight walk on the beach. Holding shells to their ears, as they sit side by side on the damp and chilly sand, they listen to that "urgent tumbling whispering roar" that Barnaby's father used to call "the news from Spain," and have again a childhood sense that if they just tried hard enough, they would be able to comprehend what they heard. Again and again, Wickersham layers meaning on "the news from Spain," as the phrase re-emerges in remarkably different stories.
For Harriet and her daughter, Rebecca, the news is the roller coaster of Harriet's needs, one illness after another, which roils and binds and intensifies their relationship during the final years of her life. For an unnamed paralyzed dancer and her caretaker, Wickersham describes an unusually intimate yet thoughtfully limited kind of love, and compares it to the woman's marriage and the aide's romance, while delicately exploring the part of sexuality in our connections. The beautifully constructed scene of the aide supporting her in the bath does what all great stories do—it shows rather than tells, and for me, became a passage that I will long remember, a composition of shared humanity.
With stories inside stories, in the final narrative the author takes a look at the ways in which women create their own pain, and tells us this is only partly fiction. Sometimes in the first person, she explores another variation: loving someone who is not available. As a writer she acknowledges, "It's all speculation....A love story—your own or anyone else's—is interior, hidden. It can never be accurately reported, only imagined. It is all dreams and invention." When the married man is finally fully honest, the other woman, also married, who has been refused and also has been the refuser, recognizes that the life of her beloved is unknown to her. It will go on without her. The news comes as though from another world, and yet is not a surprise.
In The News from Spain, there is compassion, subtlety, depth, and acute observation, especially of women's realities, all traits that will draw me to read more from this author, and from now on, to give her my full attention from the start. Any reader could do the same with confidence.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Joan Wickersham writes a regular op-ed column for The Boston Globe, and is the author of two previous books, most recently The Suicide Index, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her accomplishment has been recognized with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She also has contributed on-air essays for NPR. Born in New York, she lives in Cambridge, Mass., with her husband and two sons. Learn more on her website.
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