Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: The Embers by Hyatt Bass

The Aschers once lived what seemed a charmed existence.  Celebrated playwright and actor Joe married successful actress Laura and they and their two children, Thomas and Emily, enjoyed summers at the family cottage in the Berkshires, their escape from New York City.  But beneath the shiny exterior, there are widening fissures and cracks even before seventeen year old Thomas, suffering from lymphoma, dies, an event that exposes the extent of dysfunction and tears the family apart.  Hyatt Bass has written an intense family drama in her first novel, The Embers.

Opening with daughter Emily Ascher trying to plan her wedding, wanting to hold it on the hillside where her brother's ashes are scattered, the narrative jumps between the present and the past.  With Joe and Laura now divorced and each of them having a problematic relationship (or non-relationship) with Emily, the estranged Aschers must come to an uneasy detent, face the tragedy that ripped them apart, and learn to build a fragile future while ackowledging that devastating past.  In the face of her wedding to a really nice, amazing guy, Emily still finds herself wondering what her brother would say about her fiance, about the state of their family, about her life and the way in which she has changed, turned herself around.  Interwoven with her growing apathy about the wedding, is the history of that fateful year and what really happened the night that Thomas died, why it has wounded each of the Aschers so deeply.

This is a psychological study of a family stepped in bitterness, sorrow, and regret but also of a family wanting to finally reconcile with the past and to be able to move unburdened into the future.  It jumps between the past of the 1990s and through to the present of 2007 in each of the voices of the main characters (although Joe's voice dominates) giving the reader insight into each of the characters' ideas about what really happened the night that Thomas died as well as their own personal stories and the state of the family leading up to the tragedy.  The various narrations highlight the small and large ways in which each of the characters feels the family as a whole and as individuals has failed him or her.  And none of the characters are all that sympathetic, each of them self-absorbed and unable to recognize pain in the others, so focused on their own perceptions that they are blind to the fraying of their relationships.

And yet, despite the lack of emotion, the slowness of the building atmosphere, and the frustration the reader feels towards the obviously damaged characters, the story still weaves a spell that holds the reader's attention.  The mystery of what actually happened to Thomas the night he died and how and why the guilt from then has so long been apportioned as it has turns out to be of little importance in the grand scheme of it all although the carefully controlled revelations of more and more information as the story progresses suggests otherwise.  It is the chance of reconciliation and healing through Emily's upcoming wedding that ultimately drives the novel.  It's powerful, beautifully written, realistic, and elegaic but with a kernel, just the smallest glimmer, of light and hope despite the initial catastrophic unraveling of the family and that makes all the difference.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of the book for review.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts