`A Southern Family': Godwin on life amid the magnolias

A Southern Family, by Gail Godwin. New York: William Morrow & Company. 540 pp. $19.95. ``There aren't clear-cut saints and villains in your family,'' Clare's lover muses as the carefully planned gathering of the clan begins to fizzle in the sultry Carolina sun. ``The good and the bad, the true and the false show up in everybody.

``What makes your family so fascinating to me ... is that I am never able to predict which influence is going to manifest itself when, and in which person. It's impossible for me ever to affix blame for very long.''

It's a wry observation that goes to the heart of Gail Godwin's latest evocation of domestic life among the magnolias. And it might well sum up the genteel pace of the mostly interior ``action'' that takes place here.

For as Godwin turns her increasingly wise and affectionate eye on the regional mores she knows so intimately, she is digging deeper into the multilayered examinations of relationships that have always been her hallmark, and she is coming up with ever shinier gems. In this, her ninth book, she mines the gold of universal, individual truths.

Godwin begins this tale with the apparent suicide of 28-year-old Theo Quick, following his fatal shooting of his girlfriend. The rest of the 500-plus pages are spent with various members of the Quick family as they try to resolve their grief and face up to the multitude of ``if only''s that come with their efforts to evaluate how they could have done better by Theo.

It is bleak literary and psychological terrain, but Godwin pulls out her gifted storyteller's bag and transforms this G"otterd"ammerung in the North Carolina hills into a familiar, approachable setting. It likely will remind readers of their own family misunderstandings and arguments - and, thankfully, of their reconciliations.

In ``A Mother and Two Daughters,'' the author also wrote from multiple points of view, but with this novel she takes the device several giant, technically ambitious steps forward. We're privy to the heart-to-heart conversations Theo's father wishes he'd had with his son, and we read the letter his sister would have written him. We see Theo through the intimate recollections of his divorced wife, and we even see him as his three-year-old son remembers him.

Like the garbled message that usually emerges from the last player in the party ``telephone game,'' the perception and effect of Theo's death vary with each family member. To Godwin's great credit, each character has an equally credible and sympathetic voice.

Each has his or her regrettable flaws, as well, but for all their posturing and posing, the overriding message is one of well-intentioned people struggling with self-imposed limitations and - to some extent - throwing them off. There's an inescapable feeling that profound lessons have been learned, that things would turn out differently in the future.

Godwin tackles as many different themes as she does voices. There are commentaries on individual responsibility, womanhood, motherhood, organized religion, today's American South, and the importance of reserving judgment.

Some of her sharpest asides deal with contemporary fiction: ``The book's sure to be a success,'' Theo's writer-sister tells a friend about a new novel. ``Hopeless endings are very popular right now.''

The author has won praise in the past for the beautiful symmetry of her stories, and in this novel, too, details of plot turn upon each other like delicate strands in a finely embroidered petit point.

There's also strong design and vivid color in the texture of her words: ``...Clare had carefully preserved the venomous evening in a special corner of her memory, where she went to visit it, along with similar incidents kept in this small shrine to indignation, whenever she needed to stoke her sense of having been wronged;...''

And the occasionally gothic omens of impending tragedy are balanced by Godwin's touches of humor, as when she describes the distress of a funeral parlor director who's plumb out of magnolia leaves.

Readers of ``A Southern Family'' will want to take their time on the inner journey that is set before them, with stops along the way to consider their own family relationships.

For Gail Godwin is something of a rarity today - a writer who not only maintains an elegant and suspenseful pace, but also has something worth saying and worth thinking about.

Diane Manuel is a free-lance book reviewer.

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