Reading Norah Labiner’s latest novel, Let the Dark Flower Blossom, reminded me of watching “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”: the multiple-episode BBC series released in 1979 (not the greatly condensed remake that hit theaters in 2011). A certain amount of disorientation is built into the experience: mysteries are wrapped in mysteries, and the paths to resolutions (to the extent resolutions exist) are rarely clear or trustworthy. Yet with both the TV series and the novel I was driven forward by the mysteries’ peculiar unravelings and, in the latter case, by the haunting beauty of Labiner’s writing.
Early in LtDFB, we learn of the unsolved murder of Roman Stone: a renowned novelist, a womanizer, and a lover of the spotlight, who rose to fame when he published his first book—a blockbuster—at the age of twenty. “He was big and brash and relevant as hell,” observes Sheldon Schell, Stone’s former college roommate and one-time close friend. As Sheldon and others in Stone’s orbit discover, Stone would do anything to generate a novel-worthy story. (I’ll let you discover the unsavory specifics for yourself. And if your experience is anything like mine, it won’t take you long to start making a mental list of murder suspects.)
Sheldon, once an aspiring novelist himself, stands in Stone’s shadow, literally and figuratively. During his college days with Stone and in the years since, Sheldon hasn’t turned out a single work. By the start of LtDFB he’s retreated to an island in Lake Superior, where he lives rather humbly off the wealth of his late wife, heiress to a soda-pop-company fortune. On the island, he undertakes to write a memoir, and recalling Stone’s creation of his first novel, Sheldon observes: “He wrote the book in one draft on my typewriter. I should have taken this as a symbolic or territorial affront, as bad as, or worse than his mistreatment of my twin.”
Sheldon’s twin is Eloise, whose heart Stone once broke and who now seems trapped in a materially comfortable yet maritally unhappy life in Chicago. Part of Eloise’s displeasure with her marriage seems connected to the fact that “[s]he liked stories in which the good were rewarded and the bad were punished.” Yet her husband, Louis Sarasine, takes a more flexible view of guilt and innocence. An expert in Repressed Memory Syndrome, he successfully defends a murderer by claiming that the accused’s only surviving victim, and the sole witness for the prosecution, is afflicted with false memory syndrome and survivor’s guilt.
The triumphs of Louis Sarasine and Roman Stone offer two examples of one of the novel’s core motifs: how those who can weave the best stories out of past events or perceptions of past events—or out of pure inventions—often have the most power and influence. “If the lie can so please us–,” Sarasine asks at one point in the novel, “of what use is the truth? If it affords to real reality or moral high ground, what is its utility?”
In addition to Sheldon and Eloise, the third central character in the novel is Susu, Eloise’s grown daughter (and Sheldon’s niece). In flashbacks, we learn that Susu encountered Stone after one of his readings and quickly became enchanted by him—enough to escape with him abroad, jilting her fiancé. The exchanges between Stone and Susu, and between Stone, Sheldon, and other characters, often concern the nature and structure of stories, and it is in places like these that LtDFB is at its most metafictional. At the start of the novel, for instance, Susu asks this of an unidentified man who eventually takes shape as Stone: “How does the story begin?” This question becomes part of an ongoing conversation about the plot of an at-first-murky story, the details of which are gradually revealed.
Layered upon the two central mysteries (the plot of Susu and Stone’s “story”; the identity of Stone’s murderer) are a number of others: Who killed a hitchhiker who briefly entered Stone, Sheldon, and Eloise’s circle years before? What were the circumstances of the deaths of Eloise and Sheldon’s parents? Did Sheldon become a widower by misfortune or by design?
How readers answer these questions will depend to a large extent on whose versions of events—whose stories—they find most convincing or compelling. The way LtDFB encourages reflection on the malleability of memories, and on the stories we make from them, was, for me, one of the great pleasures of the book. Often, we reshape memories and stories innocently, almost accidentally; it seems our nature to do so. But, as the novel makes clear, this reshaping is sometimes quite intentional, and it can be done for darker purposes.
The power of memory is explored most compellingly in the scenes of Sheldon’s life on the island, where he pays regular visits to his nearest neighbor, Dr. Lemon, a retired psychiatrist who “suffers from a disease that is—in reverse chronological order—destroying his memory. He remembers the far off, but recent events elude him.” Sheldon sees Dr. Lemon’s forgetfulness as an opportunity to confess the sins from his own “story”: I thought of the story as medicine and disease. A purge; a punishment; a palliative. The doctor is confined to his bed. In the evenings I make my way through the woods and I go to his house to see him. I sit at his side. When he wakes. He whispers: Tell me. He says, Tell me. I do. I do. I tell. I will. I must. I cannot stop telling. As long as the story continues; he lives. He will live. For he wants to know what will happen next.
I thought of the story as medicine and disease.
A purge; a punishment; a palliative.
The doctor is confined to his bed. In the evenings I make my way through the woods and I go to his house to see him. I sit at his side. When he wakes.
He whispers: Tell me.
He says, Tell me. I do. I do. I tell. I will. I must. I cannot stop telling. As long as the story continues; he lives. He will live. For he wants to know what will happen next.
The scenes set on the island are rich in Gothic gloom, and occasions for some of the novel’s most beautiful writing. Here, for example, is Sheldon’s description of the gateman’s cottage in which he lives:
Though LtDFB offers some effortless pleasures, making bigger sense of it requires work: Labiner never spoon feeds clues to the mysteries explored, much less provides easy answers. As she told Amy Goetzman of the MinnPost, “I like to be demanding on the reader and challenge them, I love the reader address, I love the reader being involved.” For me, the detective work I had to do while reading this novel was a major part of my enjoyment of it.
Would My Pick be Your Pick?If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• Stories of crime or revenge
• Gothic or ghostly stories
• Licorice and oranges