Chris Cander, Whisper Hollow
Publisher: Other Press
2015, 378 pages, paperback, $18.
NO LITERAL POLTERGEISTS appear in Chris Cander’s Whisper Hollow, and yet her story is brimming with ghosts. As I was reading this debut novel—spanning fifty years in the life of a West Virginia coal-mining town—I was often reminded of the phrase Flannery O’Connor coined to describe the American South: “Christ-haunted.” This novel, while not a ghost story, is about the ghosts of guilt, both Catholic and secular, both personal and communal. And it is indeed haunting—both in the sense that it consistently evokes an atmosphere of spookiness, and also in the Flannery O’Connor sense, through its interest in exploring the way religion itself can haunt a person, or even a place.
While the narrative stance can sometimes feel haphazard, inhabiting minor characters’ points of view for various lengths of time and with varying degrees of success, the primary focus of the novel is on three vividly imagined female characters (Myrthen, Alta, and Lidia), each plagued by a different shameful secret. As a young girl, Myrthen was accidentally responsible for the death of her twin sister, and now she is a pathologically devout Catholic who has devoted her life exclusively to God. Even when she is forced to marry, Myrthen holds firmly to her belief that she is “meant to be the bride of Christ” and so she feels “like an adulteress whenever she lay with her husband” (100). Alta, on the other hand, hides the shame of a more typical (less mystical) type of adultery. Although she has spent her life dutifully accepting the roles assigned to her—first as a daughter and then as a wife—she falls in love with Myrthen’s husband, leading to a passionate but tragically-fated affair. Lidia is not introduced until the second half of the novel, which takes place several decades after the events of the early chapters. Though the source of Lidia’s own shame veers uncomfortably close to melodrama, her character nonetheless feels the most fully inhabited and richly realized. It is Lidia’s story—and the birth of her son, who possesses uncanny abilities to know and reveal the town’s long-buried secrets—that helps the narrative coalesce and crystalize, intertwining the loose ends of the various storylines in satisfying and unexpected ways.
The scope of this novel—remaining focused on a single small town but moving linearly through time from 1916 to 1969—helps to emphasize the theme of the weighty, inescapable influence of place, the way rumors and grudges and debts are inherited from generation to generation. The novel skillfully evokes the atmosphere and landscape of this coal-mining town; the reader is constantly aware of the suffocating soot that that fills the air, seeping into the pores of the characters’ skin, like a “coal-covered burden of shame” (307). The suspenseful plot point that divides the first half of the book from the second—involving a revenge-murder plot and a horrible accident that reverberates through the town—injects a welcome interlude of page-turning excitement in what is primarily a meditative, character-driven story, propelled more by internal moral conflicts than external action.
Myrthen, paradoxically, is the most fascinating and the most frustrating aspect of this novel. Her ritualistic obsessions and spiritual longings make her the most intriguing and complex of all the characters, and yet her strange and stubborn cruelty also distances her from the reader, making it difficult to form a connection. I never felt like I truly knew or understood Myrthen, never fully occupied her thoughts or emotions as deeply as I wanted to. Still, this narrative distance does serve to enhance the narrative themes of mystery and unknowability, along with the novel’s preoccupation with the way we mask our true selves from one another. Toward the end of the novel, Lidia enters the local Catholic church for the first time since childhood—planning to finally confess the shameful truth that she has been hiding for years—and notices Myrthen seated at the sanctuary’s organ: “Sometimes we become our surroundings, Lidia thought. And sometimes our surroundings become us. Myrthen, with her sturdy shoes, draconian posture, pulled stops, and invigorating hymns, looked to have rooted herself into the bench on which she sat” (299). Ultimately, the particular motivations and choices and fates of the specific characters seem to matter less than this general sense of haunted immobility, the way the characters are rooted, for better or more often for worse, to the place and people from whence they came.
—Allison Grace Myers
Chris Cander is a novelist, children’s book author, freelance writer, and teacher for Houston-based Writers in the Schools. Her novel 11 Stories, published by a small press in Houston, was included in Kirkus’s best indie general fiction of 2013.