“A Great Fullness” by Bob Sommer (Fomite Press, 344 pages, $15, paperback)
“The clues are all around her, she suspects, if she can just recognize them when she sees them. If she thinks hard enough it will come back and she’ll know why Daddy’s gone and Mommy’s dead.”
Kansas author Bob Sommer’s second novel tells of families under extreme stress and an innocent child whose life is changed irrevocably when she is 4. Sommer introduces memorable characters in a Kansas setting with a mix of place names that are fictional along with some actual Kansas towns.
At the age of 6, Kim is living with Aunt Jo (her mother’s sister) and her family at their bed and breakfast, Monarch House, in northeast Kansas. Memories of earlier life with her parents ebb and flow in Kim’s young mind, but no one asks what she remembers about the day her mother died. Soon after her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent conviction and imprisonment, custody was awarded to Aunt Jo, and Kim was taken from her father’s mother, Gammie, who has not ceased in her efforts to be involved in Kim’s life again.
Kim’s thoughts and memories are often told in a stream-of-consciousness mode with run-on sentences and stray question marks scattered throughout, revealing a mind racing between current experiences and flashes of memory. As life experiences trigger memories of her childhood, Kim braves each new onslaught, all the while suffering through the normal angst of growing up.
When her memories or her current life becomes too intense for her to handle, Kim is both comforted and dazed by the sensation of an overpowering internal hum “which sheltered her, keeping others out and herself in.” She doesn’t feel she belongs where she is and acts out in subtle ways that don’t draw too much attention. She frequently steals little items from the guests’ rooms at the B&B; she purposely breaks things and fights with other children. She likes to imagine various scenes of calamity or mayhem and then thinks, “That’d be something.” Yet as the story progresses through the years, she proves to be a sympathetic character and a worthy protagonist.
Communication with harried Aunt Jo, who is struggling to run a business and keep her family in line, is difficult and prickly at best. But Kim does make a connection with a great-uncle, Elliot, a charming, aging former television actor and rehab alumnus. Elliot finds comfort in a family setting at the B&B, acts in local theatrical productions and introduces Kim to the wonders of the backstage theater world.
As Kim is beginning to feel if not comfortable in her life, at least acclimated and functional, Gammie appears again, desperate to establish a relationship with her granddaughter. Furthermore, she urges her son, Ross, to write to Kim from prison. Her father’s letters don’t reach the girl due to Aunt Jo’s intervention until Gammie daringly hands a letter to Kim in a public setting. Kim hides it and re-reads it endlessly, asking herself what the truth is. Is it the story her father, Ross, tells from his prison cell?
The reader is also privy to Ross’ musings and memories that include stomach-churning scenes of domestic violence. The endless nightmare of prison is brought to bear from Ross’ perspective when he describes the boring sameness of each drab day and the constant cacophony of noise, “sharp, indistinguishable utterances that fell short of language but were full of meaning nonetheless, full of pain, frustration, anger, despair.”
Kim’s life has been in turmoil from the age of 4, under the burden of a sordid past not of her own making, but as she matures, she assumes the responsibility of grappling with her past as well as her impending adulthood. Will she go with Gammie to visit Ross in prison? Does she believe his version of the death of her mother? What does she remember from the day when her mother died on the kitchen floor?
Sommer has crafted a compelling story of fine character sketches, filling in enough details of both major and minor figures to reflect lives that are complicated, compensating as best they can for the blows the world has dealt each one. No one of them is whole or unscarred, and each must determine how they will endure their own pain and how they will respond to those most important in their lives.
Lois Carr is a retired librarian. She lives in Wichita.