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Read On: New novels probe difficult depths

Published 04/16/2012 12:00 AM

"Carry The One"
by Carol Anshaw
(currently available, Simon and Schuster)

This is a novel of great depth and despair all wound into one big dysfunctional family. Anshaw's powerful writing follows a dysfunctional family of rather bohemian parents, Horace and Loretta; Carmen the family "savior;" Alice, the free spirited lesbian artist more like her father than she will admit; and Nick, the brilliant astronomer; whose addiction to the seedier side of life drags him down and makes him the centrifugal force that the family swirls around.

As the saying goes, you can love your family but you don't have to like them. "Carry The One" opens with a car accident where a young girl is killed on a dark road by a car filled with party revelers after Carmen's wedding. That one accident will dictate the paths and intersections for the rest of their lives. As Anshaw writes "There's still this connection. ... because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we're not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one." Watching her brother take another little white pill and stare at his plate of pad sieu, Alice's feelings for her addict brother are illustrated: "In order to keep liking Nick (as opposed to loving him which was non-negotiable), Alice sometimes had to look at him obliquely, or with her eyes half closed, or through a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. Straight on would burn her retinas."

In a family, you are always part of one another no matter what happens or how you might try not to be related. I read this book twice, first rather casually and the second time with a watchfulness of the characters and how one action can cause a domino affect on family dynamics. Anshaws uncovers the nitty- gritty complexities of family life and through her careful choice of words gives us a gift of a novel that shows us honesty, love, sadness, compassion and guilt – things every family has in one way or another. You will find parts of yourself with some character in "Carry The One," so close your door, immerse your life into theirs and enjoy.

"The Lifeboat"
By Charlotte Rogan
(currently available, Reagan Arthur)

While reading "The Lifeboat" you have to ask yourself, "What would I do in such a desperate situation?" As the main character's lawyer says later during her trial, "Imagine yourself in Grace's predicament, confined with these powerful women in a twenty-three foot boat, surrounded by nothing but open sea. You had just seen a man condemned to death by these very women. Wouldn't you to, in fear for your life, do whatever it was they asked of you?" Isn't survival at sea considered an act of God and no one should be found guilty of trying to live?

Grace is the 22-year-old narrator of this terrifying, tightly told tale of the sinking of an oceanliner crossing the Atlantic from England in 1914. A mysterious explosion sinks the ship, scattering drowned bodies over the ocean's surface. Few escape onto the small overcrowded lifeboats, Grace being one of them.

With little food and drink, paranoia and power struggles darken as deepen as the lines on the survivors faces as they begin to starve. Cannibalism is mentioned but quickly thrown overboard as passengers die, go crazy and throw themselves overboard. Deeper issues begin to surface under such dire circumstances and "The Lifeboat" becomes a study of human nature and the will to survive under extreme conditions. When two woman take charge and condemn their weakened leader, Mr. Hardie, to death, Grace begins to fear for her life as well.

As Rogan writes, "It was not the sea that was cruel, it was the people." Rogan has written a brilliant and harrowing debut novel - a tale that makes you feel like as though you are on this lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, just as thirsty and hungry as its occupants, riding the 30 foot swells of anticipation and fear as you watch these passengers struggle for survival not only physically but mentally. One can read "The Lifeboat" as a thrilling survival story or a profound look at the complexities of human nature at its core.

Annie Philbrick is the co-owner of Bank Square Books in downtown Mystic; www.banksquarebooks.com.