Carol Anshaw is one of those authors who should be a household name (in literature-loving homes, anyway). There's a good chance that her latest novel, Carry the One, will make it happen.
It's her fourth work of fiction, and although her 1992 debut, Aquamarine, arguably remains her best novel, the more plot-driven Carry the One has great potential to bring her work to a wider readership.
In 1983, three Chicago siblings — Carmen, Alice and Nick — are bound together in trauma after a fatal accident the night of Carmen's wedding to Matt. After Nick's intoxicated girlfriend, Olivia, drives the car that hits and kills a 10-year-old girl, the siblings spend the next 25 years grappling with guilt, addiction, love, regret and obsession. Even though Carmen was not in the car at the time, she can't forgive herself for letting her siblings drive home that night.
Carry the One is no sappy tale about lives transformed and profound lessons learned in the aftermath of a terrible accident. Instead, Anshaw shows us how trauma changes everything and nothing. These characters are no wiser for having endured the accident. They don't transcend the past so much as wish they could erase it. There is no such thing as relief.
Carmen becomes a mother, then divorces — or rather, Matt leaves her for their 19-year-old babysitter — and marries again. Alice, an artist, is tortured by her love for Maude (who just happens to be Matt's sister), and knows their volatile relationship is doomed to fail.
Alice also can't stop herself from making paintings of the dead girl, a habit she keeps secret. "Everybody, she figured, had to coat the grain of sand in his or her own way," Anshaw writes. "Making these paintings was hers. How the others managed their own unwieldy burdens she didn't know."
Over the years, Nick fares the worst in overcoming the past, pulling down the entire family in his battle with drug addiction. Being sober, he feels, is not sustainable: "Drugs have mass and density. Thick and delicious, they fill every crevice inside you. They offer absolute comfort and well-being. In reverse, their absence leaves you empty and arid."
Ansaw understands that turmoil (and depression) can be evident in less dramatic ways. Carmen knows that "she really needed all new underwear, and had made a mental note of this," but can't motivate herself to buy some. Her refrigerator is filled not with meals, but "a hilarious number of jars of mustard." The messiness of Carmen's life is the boring kind, but feels no less overwhelming than Nick's addiction does for him.
Although the car accident is a trigger that sets the plot in motion, Anshaw is careful to avoid exploiting it as a tool for redemption. Throughout, the accident hovers in the background, a subtle but unrelenting and irrevocable presence.
By the end of this fine, eloquent novel, most of the characters manage to keep going in spite of themselves. In a casual yet consoling moment, one of the last lines uttered in the book is, "You're okay now." For these damaged people, it's the best they can hope to hear.
Carmela Ciuraru is the author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.