Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for this and her other books, but don’t let that stop you from reading this breathtaking collection. It’s as if Chekov and Gogol and Dostoevsky had a three way, and their love child died in the bloom of her youth while song birds, drunk on vodka-infused berries nabbed from a bowl by her bedside, sang dirges that melded with her fitful, fluttering soul into an ether that filled the lungs of these men and women laid waste by Chernobyl. Everybody here is lost, forgotten, sacrificed, forlorn, but they are so goddamned alive. When was the last time you had to stop reading a passage for a minute because it was so great you didn’t want it to end ? That happened over and over. The scope and depth of all it is overwhelming, and since I finished it tonight, I haven’t begun to put it in a critical context. But I’m a little drunk on the melancholy.
Admittedly I began the book with a little dread. I just finished Wolf, Harrison’s first novel and one I’d first read in graduate school in 1988. I have carried a high opinion of Harrison ever since, but now I had to wonder why ? What I liked about it at 26 left me cold at 53, so I was prepared for a similar reaction to Dalva, especially since Harrison would be writing in the first person as a woman, and I’d happily wash out early.
But Dalva is a marvel — both the book and the character. Dalva is in her mid-40s and living in Santa Monica and working as a social worker when we meet her. But as the novel unfolds, we realize this barely her at all : Part Sioux, Dalva is the great-granddaughter of a famed missionary and horticulturist who was more of a convert to the Sioux than a converter. He took a young Sioux wife and managed to find himself in the middle of much of the terrible destruction of the Sioux and their way of life at the hands of the United States military. He also had a great deal of land. As such, Dalva is not only rich with history, she’s plain rich ; when she returns to her family home in Northern Nebraska to search for the son she had with her 16 year old Sioux boyfriend, she brings along Michael, an alcoholic professor and her sometime lover, who has been granted the opportunity to read & publish Great-Grandfather Northridge’s personal letters.
Harrison lets Dalva narrate the first and second third of the book, while Michael takes over in the middle. Harrison also includes long passages from Northridge’s journals, so what starts out as a disarmingly prim and undistinguished story is actually the opposite. Harrison writes beautifully as Dalva as she navigates her life today and as she recalls the events of the past forty years that have formed her ; while Michael is a comical, annoying academic, Harrison still invests him with a wry wit, pathos, and some surprising insight about Dalva and her family. Northridge’s letters are a mixture of 19th century benevolent naiveté and a more modern scientific doggedness. These three streams of voice and time become a fast and loud river that is as much about the Sioux and their destruction as it is about Dalva and her sorrows and solace.
Too often I find people I’d like to know only after they’ve died. RIP Jenny Diski. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/jenny-diski-1947 – 2016