Tuesday, September 26, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: The Marble Orchard By Paul Johnson

After decades spent living a bohemian lifestyle spanning four continents, painter Carl Larson has finally returned to his hometown of Jamestown, New York. Expecting to spend only a few weeks there while he settles his widowed mother into a nursing home, he is unexpectedly caught by the ghosts of his past and a new artistic direction. Caught unaware by the force of his own memories, Carl is immobilized long enough for external forces to pin him in one place. Now facing the shadow of his eleven year-old self, and the events that led to his migratory lifestyle, Carl must confront the town and choices he’s spent a lifetime trying to escape.

Narrated alternately from the viewpoints of eleven year-old and fifty-three year-old Carl Larson, The Marble Orchard is both a story of self-knowledge and a ghost story. Paul Johnson explores the impact the ghosts of the past have on both memory and the present.

Carl is back in a place he worked to avoid and has returned hoping to quickly clean up his mother’s affairs and escape back to the world beyond Jamestown, New York. However, Carl has underestimated the power of his past to ensnare him – and the possibility that what he is running from isn’t Jamestown and his family, but rather self-scrutiny and awareness. As Johnson explains in an interview with the Las Vegas Optic on July 28, 2006: “the place you grew up is always full of ghosts if you go back.” The Marble Orchard is a cautionary tale of what can happen when one chances that return, and the gifts that can result.

In fact, The Marble Orchard is brimming with Johnson’s personal ghosts. In the same article with the Optic, Johnson goes on to explain that The Marble Orchard is “built around something that happened when I was 11.” One of the transformational moments in Carl Larson’s life is pulled directly from Johnson’s own childhood; a serious accident landed him in an overcrowded hospital and in a ward with men dying of gangrene. Because his own accident happened one month after the introduction of penicillin, his own leg was saved.

The man Johnson met there was the basis for the character of Carl Soderstrom. “He told marvelous stories. It gave me the notion of this great wide world out there. I couldn't wait to get out and experience it. He had a great influence on me.”

While it is unclear what ghosts Johnson is exorcising with The Marble Orchard, he maneuvers his plot and avoids the pitfalls, which can befall semi-autobiographical novels. Johnson keeps his plot tightly focused and does not let the tone of The Marble Orchard fall into pathos and regrets, focusing instead on hope and redemption.

It is in the small details of everyday life that Johnson shows he is a consummate observer of humanity. Whether it is house-proud Lorraine, demanding sufficient praise of her home, or Carl tripping over moldering carpets, Johnson includes minute details in his novel, creating verisimilitude for readers, engaging them more deeply in his tale.

Read the review at Front Street Reviews.

ISBN10: 0976627469
ISBN13: 9780976627463

Publisher: The Wessex Collective
Publication Date: June 1, 2006
Binding: Trade Paperback


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