Although I applied (twice) to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I never really wanted to go there. It just seemed to be what one did when applying to MFA writing programs. Living in Iowa didn’t appeal to me, and as much as I love Marilynne Robinson, she didn’t seem enough of a draw. Knowing about all of the remarkable writers who come out of that program didn’t even entice me. Of course, I was rejected from the program (twice) so my ambivalence was basically irrelevant.
Now, if I had been given the choice to have been born and reared in Iowa, that may have been another story. I think there’s something about the state that causes spare, haunting writers to grow there. What am I basing this on? Well, not a lot, but I am convinced by my theory. One of the women I met at the MFA program that did end up taking me hails from Iowa and writes some of the darkest, most particular and haunting fiction I’ve ever read. And then there’s Michelle Hoover, who recently published her first novel, The Quickening.
I was barely halfway through the book when I texted my Iowan writer friend to tell her to read it. It reminded me of her writing before I even flipped to the author’s bio and realized she, too, grew up in the state. The Quickening is slow, spare and wrenching in all the right ways. I was personally shocked by the NYTimes review that criticized it for being less compelling than the diary that inspired it; I found the book to be absorbing, vivid and lyrical.
The novel alternates chapters between the points of view of two Depression era Midwestern farm wives, Enidina Current and Mary Morrow. I don’t know about other readers, but my heart was with Enidina from the start. She is large, red-haired, practical, solitary. She met and married her husband, Frank, late in life for the time–she was in her early thirties–and they seem to appreciate each other all the more for the years they spent alone. She has a bad feeling about Mary–small, pale, more drawn to the church than to the farm–from the moment they meet. Mary traipses across the landscape from her too-big painstakingly cared for home, already the mother of two sons, and proclaims Enidina to be pregnant. So sets in motion the events of the rest of the novel.
All that follows is tied, somehow, to births and deaths. Enidina’s chapters are addressed to her grandson, whom she never meets yet searches for all her life. Enidina and Mary’s children are what they live for and what destroys them. Destruction abounds in this novel, from the personal–the preemptive destruction of Mary’s marriage by an earlier rape–to the historical–the Hog Reduction Program of 1933, in which farmers were forced to kill their pigs to reduce surplus and drive up price. What a terrible, tragic event. Fires factor largely, as well–one unexplained, one with the saddest and most pointed of motivations.
Throughout the novel, certain information is purposely withheld, yet hinted at or written around in such a way that it is obvious. I hate to give away what I’m talking about here, so I won’t go into specifics, but I felt that the technique was effective for a few reasons. First, it made me feel smart. Ha. I’m not really kidding–as a reader, I got to feel so close to the characters that I was intuiting the unsaid. Of course, Ms. Hoover was the smart one, infusing the text with meaning without outright delivering information. I half-wished, at times, that I hadn’t guessed or anticipated what some of the story’s secrets were, but when I got to one revelation I actually hadn’t expected at all–yet should have–I realized that there was some serious expert manipulation going on.
I will give a nod to Alice Munro here–I actually bought this book at Powell’s in Portland in a stack with a Ms. Munro classic–Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage–but the similarities go further than proximity. There are overlapping themes–farm life, relationships between women, mother-daughter bonds, domestic violence, nightmarish accidents–as well as stylistic elements–understated prose, deft word choice. I won’t promise that if you love Alice Munro’s work you’ll like this book, too, but I think there’s a good chance.
So, believe me and not the New York Times–this is a beautiful book. Read it while you wait for Nicole Miller, my Iowan friend, to publish her first collection, and then read that, too.