In Another Country
The title of Susan Kenney’s In Another Country—a familiar phrase from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta—evokes Elizabethan drama on the grandest scale, but Kenney’s is a small, modest, and unassuming book. Its genre is not high tragedy but domestic fiction of the “upstate Gothic” variety. Kenney’s settings are living rooms and emergency rooms, driveways and intensive care units; her characters are not flawed heroes but ordinary parents, children, husbands, and wives. Described on the title page as a novel, In Another Country is actually six stories told by the same narrator, Sara Boyd. When Sara is twelve, her father dies unexpectedly of a heart attack on a trip out of town; a few years after his death, her mother loses her mind. Sara goes to college and graduate school and eventually marries, only to discover when she and her husband are in their thirties that he is dying of cancer. In Kenney’s hands, these events and Sara’s reflections on them read less like a novel than an extended meditation on guilt and responsibility, on courage and loss, on the utter helplessness of humans to prevent their own suffering and that of the people they love. To these important themes Kenney has perfectly adjusted not only her book’s structure and narrative voice but also its characterization and imagery.
In Another Country opens with “Mirrors,” in which Sara recounts her memory of visiting a circus sideshow with her father shortly before his death. In a contemplative tone, this story establishes the tender relationship between Sara, then twelve, and her forty-year-old father, who consents, against his better judgment, to take his daughter to see midgets, a tattooed lady, and a deformed woman known as Linda the Armless Legless Wonder. As Sara considers the long-forgotten incident, she gently chides her father for “never writing down his thoughts,” for being “careless of his own identity.” Sara will not make the same mistake; she will leave, in her own straightforward words, a record of her struggle to understand the shattering events which permanently affect her behavior and personality. The calm tone of “Mirrors” gives way to the urgency of “A Place I’ve Never Been,” in which Sara remembers the details of her father’s death and funeral, and of the prizewinning story called “Facing Front,” which deals with Sara’s mother’s insanity. In the collection’s title piece and in “Hallways,” the brief story that follows it, Sara moves freely between past and present, between her husband’s illness and her father’s death. In the last story, “The Death of the Dog and Other Rescues,” Sara’s voice is tougher and feistier, her wit more apparent, her sense of irony more insistent than anywhere else in the book. Although Kenney carefully modulates her persona’s tone, Sara’s voice remains as familiar and immediate as that of a letter or journal entry. When she says, “I’m sitting in the hospital room. This is where I’ve been waiting,” the use of present tense draws the reader inexorably into the scene, into Sara’s incredulity as she realizes that she must somehow face yet another heartbreak.
In Another Country is narrated in the first person, and it is Sara whom the reader comes to know most intimately. The oldest child in her family, Sara assumes responsibility for her father’s heart attack. Surely, she thinks, if only she had been there, she could have kept him from dying. In memory and dreams she pursues him, but she can never catch up: “I am, as always, still too far away, for this is long ago and in another country, and besides, the patient’s dead.” As Sara matures, her powerlessness to prevent her father’s death generates in her “an irresistible impulse to rescue everything and everyone in sight.” She develops a knack for behaving well in crises, whether the crisis involves a lost child, an injured dog, a manic-depressive mother, or a terminally ill husband. “If you were lost,” she tells both her daughter and her husband on separate occasions, “wherever you were, I would look and look and never stop until I found you and we were together again.” Sara comes to realize that these words do not express “power, or certainty, or even belief,” but instead assert her...
(The entire section is 1759 words.)