Janet Kauffman’s first novel is, on the surface, an intensely personal story set in a curious backwater of American society. Because Kauffman writes with a poet’s economy and evocative skill, however, Collaborators also serves, in the manner of a myth or fairy tale, to encode a fantasy with much broader resonance. The subconscious material here given conscious expression involves union, incomplete separation, and reabsorption: the process through which mothers are re-created in and by their daughters.
The book’s first half conjures up a close, earthbound relationship between the child Andrea Doria—always called Dovie—and her mother (who, like most children’s mothers, has no name except Mother). The child’s view of her mother is a compound of awe, admiration, mystery, and desire; if she is at times almost overwhelmed by her mother’s omnipotence, that omnipotence is wholly necessary to her security. Because the story is transmitted through the child’s visual and sensual memory, Andrea Doria’s father and brother scarcely seem to exist—as in the narcissistic world of childhood only the self is important. She is enmeshed with her mother, her shadow, her apprentice, ultimately her collaborator.
The chapters are short, like the fragments of memory that remain from childhood—intensely vivid but with little sense of context or connection. The narrative voice, though clearly that of Andrea Doria as an adult, does not provide linkages or interpretation. Thus for the reader, also, there are puzzles and mysteries: A child can never know all of a parent’s secrets. It is this blurring of “reality” that gives the specific events of Dovie’s childhood their universal resonance. Does one understand the truth by knowing what really happened and how it can be explained, or is there indeed a truer reality in the residue of feeling that remains unexamined and therefore ingrained? The subjective nature of the scenes makes them serve not only as scenes from Dovie’s story—a narration about someone else—but also as metaphors that reveal the workings of the unconscious, just as a dream can tell truth by presenting the impossible.
The fragmentary scenes that conjure up childhood’s mother are laden with the specific sensory details that burn into the mind at moments of intense emotion, especially when the emotion is too contradictory or too threatening to face. In one early scene expanded from a story in Kauffman’s collection Places in the World a Woman Could Walk (1983), Andrea Doria lies on the beach in her mother’s shadow. She feels fragile and boneless, compared to her mother’s sturdy frame; there is a sense of homelessness, as of an exile cast forth from her native land and fearful of further change. The images of separation anxiety are almost overwhelming; the child is only intermittently aware of her own body and feels safe only when sure of her mother’s attention:I’m small enough to lie beside her and use her shade. There, I am invisible; I am in hiding, in the only darkness she offers me. But if I raise my head and look over my chin into the daylight, I can see the blond unshaven hair on her calves, glitters of sand among the hairs, and, beyond her legs, clear strips of navy-blue ocean and white sky. The things I see have, as frame, one of my mother’s limbs; that’s how she places herself, convenient, dismembered, for such compositions. She doesn’t realize that her body is breakable, but for me each glimpse of her, whole, is a resurrection. I believe it is she, not I, who attaches her body this closely at the edge of everything. When I look up, there is an arm, a leg. . . .
When her mother gazes at the ocean or speaks of Ruth, her own girlhood friend, Dovie aches with the withdrawal of attention; knowing that her mother will soon go for another swim, she uses the time to prepare herself, “so I will not hold my breath the whole time.”
In addition, the setting and characterization are full of fascination. Dovie’s mother is no plastic suburban “mom” but a woman of strength and complexity, a strong-boned Mennonite farmer with individualistic and sometimes subversive personal convictions. The tobacco land was originally hers; marriage simply added a neighboring farm. Mother and daughter do hard physical labor in the fields and stripping sheds, talking as they...
(The entire section is 1788 words.)