Review: Glass Boys, by Nicole Lundrigan

>>Published: July 2011

>>Finally got around to it: December 2011

Mrs. Fagan sighed. Somehow, this house, rickety and full of whispers, had become a home for herself and her son. Even though he was fully grown, he lived with her still. In the room he had occupied since he was a boy. When her older daughter was grown, Mrs. Fagan had rooted her out, and she would do the same with the younger girl, as soon as possible. But Garrett would stay. Garrett was a good boy, strange, yes, different, yes, but he was a decent son. Maybe she hadn’t loved him enough, or protected him from Eli. Maybe he had been damaged somehow, when lost under the ice pans for those long minutes. But what sort of son offers up a reward he has earned to his useless old mother?

She went to her son’s room, opened the door, and there he was, on his knees, spreading out a scrap of beautiful carpet. “Looks nice,” she said. “Might be hard to keep clean.”

“I’ll be careful,” he said. “I won’t make a stain.”

“No, you won’t,” she replied. “I’m sure you won’t.” Garrett Wesley Glass was a good boy. A good man. No one could tell her any differently.

***

Glass Boys, Nicole Lundrigan’s fourth novel, is a compelling family mystery set in the small everyone-is-in-everyone’s-business town of Knife’s Point, Newfoundland. When Eli Fagan discovers the unsettling secret his stepson, Garrett Glass, has hidden in an old pickle jar, an unfortunate and accidental death drives an impassable wedge between the Fagans and a neighbouring family, the Trenches.

Spanning several years—taking us from the death of Lewis Trench’s brother Roy, through his marriage to Wilda and the childhood and adolescence of Lewis’ two young sons, Melvin and Tobias—Lundrigan gradually exposes Garrett Glass’ dangerous proclivities, and how is inability to understand and contain such urges risks destroying the Fagans and the Trenches, casting dark aspersions over the small Newfoundland town.

Lundrigan’s approach is subtly non-linear. She whisks us back and forth on a whim, dovetailing threads in an effort to understand the various threads of mistrust and discontentment that have woven these families together, in spirit if not in reality. Her method, and the supremely lyrical quality of her writing, offers a series of impressionistic family portraits that neither ignores nor directly explains the intentions of her two families, relying instead on a naturalistic manner of exploring emotional self-examination and trauma un-tethered by attentive parental influence.

The overwhelming tenor is evocative of Grant Wood’s American Gothic; there’s a lifelessness and timid presentation to both Wilda and Mrs. Fagan, a muted sensibility that trickles down to their children—Wilda, incapable of giving herself over as a mother; and Mrs. Fagan, oblivious to Garrett’s unsettling idiosyncrasies—and invariably affects their growth. Conversely, Eli Fagan is, at first glance, an abusive, uncaring husband and father figure, and Lewis Trench is more than willing to assume the worst of Melvin, without truly understanding his son’s actions. It’s through Melvin’s younger brother, Toby, that these imperfections are made clear.

The faults and inaccessibility of their parents is cyclical—Lundrigan reveals their past miseries as points on the line of fate, dictating their inadequacies as parents before children were ever a threat to their futures. The X-factor, so to speak, is Garrett, and Garrett’s very specific secret which Eli would sooner forget than comprehend. And it is Garrett and Glass Boys’ uncomfortable examination of a young boy’s confusion developing into an adult’s homosexual and paedophilic tendencies that contrasts so alarmingly with Lundrigan’s effortlessly poetic diction.

Though my lack of small town maritime experience made Lundrigan’s work somewhat difficult to penetrate, her language and respectful, realistic depictions of people and place were far more captivating than I first expected. It didn’t take long for me to feel drunk on her descriptions of environments and interactions, like ice settled on a young boy’s eyelashes, or the way two figures embrace in an act of extreme violence, “hugging almost like old friends.” Glass Boys is unnervingly soft, its tenderness underlined by thick strokes of familial secrets and dark histories.

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