Back in December, in a post about grieving during the holidays, I mentioned some new works of fiction (all from small presses) that deal in some way with loss. I am pleased to finally be writing about one of them, Kate Gray’s profound and poetic début novel, Carry the Sky.
The novel alternates between the stories of two young teachers at St. Timothy’s, a fictional Delaware boarding school established “for farm boys to learn Chaucer, to learn rowing, to learn ways of tending corn.” One of the teachers is Taylor Alta, who at the beginning of the book, in the fall of 1983, is just starting her job as an instructor of English and geography and as coach of the girls’ rowing team. The other is Jack Song, a more seasoned (and, consequently, more disaffected) teacher who nevertheless remains committed to sharing his passion for physics with St. Tim’s students.
Uniting the stories of Taylor and Song is sorrow over the deaths of loved ones: Song has recently lost his sister, Kim, to a blood disease; Taylor’s wounds are fresher: almost as soon as she arrives at St. Timothy’s she learns that a fellow rower from college—her first and greatest love, Sarah—has drowned in the Schuylkill River while coaching rowers at a Philadelphia boarding school. Gray’s writing about grieving is powerful not only because of the beauty of her language but also because of the intensely physical nature of it. As Taylor takes up her coaching duties at St. Tim’s, every part of her surroundings seems haunted by Sarah:
While Taylor’s grieving seems inseparable from rowing, from water and motion, Jack Song perceives much of life through the lens of physics. As he learns more about Taylor (“Tall Girl,” as he thinks of her) and about the loss of her former crewmate, he observes
Also uniting Taylor and Song are two St. Tim’s students: Carla, a gifted rower and budding naturalist, and Kyle, a strange and brilliant young man who at times seems capable of leading the classes he attends. As Song says of Kyle, “Never has a student been so quick to understand science, despite my unfortunate directions. Here is a true Student of the Year. Young Mr. Science.” Song, a Korean-American who believes he was hired as a “token,” seems to recognize Kyle (who is repeatedly bullied through the novel) as both a kindred spirit and a fellow outsider:
Kyle’s brilliance and vulnerability also draw Taylor toward him, and both she and Song feel the urge to protect him. Yet, as Taylor and Song learn, there is no containing Kyle, even when that might seem to be in his best interests. He’s the archetypal force of nature, a force that when fully unleashed proves most damaging to himself.
The more complicated case may be Carla. Intellectually, emotionally, and romantically drawn, in varying degrees, to Taylor and Song, she sparks desire and fear in both teachers, who for obvious reasons must fight their mutual attraction to her. For me, one of the most moving aspects of the novel was the way in which Carla’s search for her sexual identity, and her attempts to express it, mirrors and reanimates the experiences of a younger Taylor. Through flashbacks, we see Taylor’s expressions of love rebuffed by Sarah, who is as socially conservative as Taylor’s own family.
These memories and the emotional isolation of St. Tim’s make Taylor’s grieving process feel especially lonely. And when Crisco, a mutual friend of Taylor’s and Sarah’s, assures Taylor that Sarah did love her, the words are hardly consoling:
From Taylor’s point of view, at least, the connection with Carla feels more dangerous than comforting. But the relationship becomes essential to Carla. When another great loss strikes her, Taylor, Song, and the whole St. Tim’s community, this relationship is tested and ultimately strengthened.
Yet nothing can ever be the same. Although Taylor and Song already understand this from their past experiences, this understanding is of little help. At the height of the crisis, metaphors of physics fail Song:
Here and in many other places, I was struck again by the beauty of the language. Kate Gray is an award-winning poet, and it shows. What affected me even more, though, were the questions the novel raises about how best to face the pain of loss, both in ourselves and in others close to us: What are our responsibilities and what are our limits? Is there any such thing as a “healing process”? Or is it all just a matter of holding on in the hopes that the turbulence will, at some point, subside?
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
▪ Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen
▪ The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides
▪ The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
▪ The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
▪ Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown