ANN PATCHETT Commonwealth. Reviewed by Carmel Bird
Revelations ebb and flow in Ann Patchett’s new novel.
Ideally, a family exists for the common good of its members. In this engrossing novel, the principal two families are fractured so that the members, in particular the children, no longer have access to that common good. The story starts with a christening party at which the beautiful mother of the baby girl falls for a handsome guest.
So, an ironic beginning, and by the way the baby’s father is a cop, and the house is full of cops with guns in holsters. Throughout the novel there are guns and literary references, many of these to Chekhov, leading the reader to recall the famous quote about the gun on the wall in act one that will go off in act three. But it turns out Patchett is just playing with the reader here. The gun doesn’t ever go off, but, from the moment the handsome guest and the beautiful mother lock eyes, the two families, one with four children, the other with two, are done for.
The children gang up against the four parents, who are now more or less absent, and the childhood antics are like an Enid Blyton fantasy gone horribly wrong. Arson, forgery, drugs. The action spans the years from 1964 to 2004, by which time the original couples are old and dying, and the children have all gone their separate ways. One boy died as a child, as a direct result of parental negligence. It was thus: the children were all more or less running wild, unsupervised, one with his father’s Smith & Wesson in his sock – relax, the gun is in the sock, but it’s not the cause of death. No, he was allergic to bee-stings, was stung, and had no access to his medication because the others had, as usual, drugged the annoying youngest boy with it. When the ex-cop, the real owner of the gun, is old and dying, he asks his daughter to shoot him, but she doesn’t.
This is all dramatic and tragic, and there’s plenty more happening, all delivered in smooth, plain prose and structured in a particularly fractured and non-chronological way. Embedded in the narrative are a novel and a movie titled Commonwealth. Franny, who was the baby christened in the first chapter, grows up to have an affair with a married novelist. She tells him the family stories, even though the children had agreed never to tell the whole story about the death. He uses the stories as inspiration for his work. Some characters only learn key details of their own lives when they read the book or see the movie. This is shocking. The novelist doesn’t really deny the source of his material, but explains: ‘Writers get their inspirations from a lot of places. It’s never any one thing.’ The families don’t see it this way. Some would like to sue him, some would like to kill him. Nothing happens. It’s not that kind of novel. The novelist does in fact give Franny the rights to the movie.
The way the narrative appears to drift in time from one perspective to another, one place to another, seems to replicate to a degree the nature of thought and memory. Readers need to give themselves over to the technique, and when they do they will be rewarded by the ebb and flow of revelations. When near death herself, the mother of the dead boy has a vision of his death, and is reconciled with him:
He feels a sharp pain in his neck while his sisters and the not-sisters run in a circle around him. He stops and puts his hand high up on his chest near the base of his throat.
This is a vivid and moving passage, ending:
She feels the weight of him in her chest as he comes into her arms. He is her son, her beloved child, and she takes him back.
Ann Patchett Commonwealth Bloomsbury 2016 PB 336pp $26.99
Carmel Bird is the author of 30 books including novels, collections of short fiction, and books on writing, such as Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life. Her most recent novel is Family Skeleton, published in September 2016.
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