In her stories and novels, Antonya Nelson peers into the lives of her characters so closely that the intimacy borders on uncomfortable. And she does it with her typically spare, piercing writing, creating full characters with a just a few well-chosen words. We don't know much about what these people look like (not that it matters), but we know their joys and longings and dark secrets.
"Bound," her exquisite latest novel, focuses on the connections people have throughout their lives: long-ago connections that resurface, family connections in the present, connections to times and places. Nelson has crafted overlapping lives and stories that don't fit neatly into a box, but somehow pack perfectly into the novel.
A fatal car crash sets events in motion: The dead woman leaves guardianship of her teenage daughter to Catherine, an old friend she hasn't seen in years — so long that Catherine didn't even know Misty had a daughter. Cattie, the daughter, runs away from boarding school in Connecticut, living with a friend's sister until she decides to make the journey home to Houston.
Catherine, once a trophy wife, busies herself with helping her much-older husband, Oliver, attend to his businesses around Wichita and with looking in on her mother, a retired professor who lives in a care home after having had a stroke. The dynamic between Catherine and her mother has changed — for the better, Catherine somewhat reluctantly admits to herself — since the stroke robbed the older woman of speech. Oliver, meanwhile, has yet another sweetheart on the side, a rocky-to-nonexistent relationship with both of his exes and daughters, and a calculated but dissipating denial of his own advancing age.
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Catherine, with no children of her own, is stunned to find out that Misty left Cattie in her care, but pleased at the same time. Although it appears Catherine has no idea her marriage has been compromised, perhaps she has an idea, a nagging hint, and shifts her energy from her husband to Cattie. As Catherine drives Cattie around Wichita, memories of her friendship with Misty and their wild youth flood back, memories of their fearlessness despite the fact that a serial killer — BTK — was stalking Wichita.
"Why hadn't this truly scared Catherine, back then? ... Perhaps the girls had been too far habituated to their own dramatizing and fictionalizing and exaggerating. ... Was this how they'd been so cavalier concerning the serial killer? His extremity merely another wild tale to be told? Or was it the fact of their friendship, the two of them, unalone in the world, and somehow thereby impervious?"
And in the present, Wichita is abuzz as the killer has resurfaced, with taunting letters to the police and the newspaper. Nelson nails the atmosphere of a city unnerved by fear, obsessively awaiting each scrap of news about the case, and even taking a perverse pride in the notoriety a serial killer brings to one's hometown.
Even Nelson's seemingly simple characters have depth and complexity; they are flawed, sometimes deeply so, but have sometimes-untapped inner strengths as well. As they all struggle for — and against — their connections to others, what they want and need is often changeable and murky.
Nelson works with numerous strands in the novel: some are sturdy, tied in knots; some are pretty, tied in bows; some are long severed; some are only just starting to fray. Some are tangled around several people; some tie just two. But as in life, few people are completely unbound.
"Bound" by Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury USA, 240 pages, $25)
If you go
Antonya Nelson book-signing
What: Reading and book-signing by Wichita native Antonya Nelson, author of "Bound" and numerous other novels and story collections
Where: Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
How much: Free
or more information, call 316-682-1181.