Ah, the sweet nothings spoken by a husband to his beloved wife—or so they appear as interpreted by Caroline Miller in this blog’s current Pulitzer-winning novel, Lamb in His Bosom. There is a sort of logic to Lonzo, I’ll admit: his injunction demanding that Cean stay home does stem from a momentarily frightening snakebite, which might inspire anybody to be a bit overprotective. Fortunately for Cean, the snakebite proves utterly uneventful—she has no lasting harm from it, her unborn child is unaffected by the snake venom, and a few pages later we’d all be hard-pressed to notice whether Lonzo is even particularly interested in enforcing the “do not leave the house, ‘lessen ye’re with me” decree.
Uneventful is perhaps the kindest and cruelest thing I can say about the novel, at present. Miller is seemingly fascinated by the humdrum details of life at home. Imagine someone narrating your everyday morning routine—“He is careful to set the toothpaste cap on a flat surface, so that it does not accidentally roll away. He then retrieves the toothbrush from its holder, which is designed to keep the bristles upright, allowing them to dry between brushings. This kind of foresight is important to a thrifty household.”—and then extend it for a few chapters. It’s hard to understand why I’m reading, or what any of these people have to do with the idea of storytelling or fiction.
I recognize, there may be something subtle happening here. It’s at least a little cheering to see a female character kept in the spotlight: we follow Cean’s daily life, and not Lonzo’s. But it’s hard to tell whether anything that happens to her is of significance. Their lives are so simple that very little distinguishes one day from the next, and the rare moments of apparent importance (like the day she is bitten by a snake) recede into the distance like ripples swallowed into a sea far too placid to take notice of them. If Miller seemed interested in using these details to explore the psychological experience of the sheltered and isolated farmer’s wife, I could make sense of this. Alternatively, she could be operating like Melville in Moby-Dick, who used the routines of whaling as a sort of baseline for the narrative….only Melville’s details are at least describing a kind of work that is dangerous and somewhat thrilling, and Melville uses the banality of whaling as a sort of contrast to the epic and almost excessively outlandish behavior of the captain and crew in certain scenes. Miller doesn’t have either of these elements working for her.
And, at the point where I’ve left off, she’s losing her one advantage, since she’s turning the narrative from Cean now to her husband, father, and brothers as they take goods to the coast for trade. Granted, this may open up the novel a bit, bringing in new characters and possibilities for interaction. But it’s hard to be invested in them—I’m 10-15% of my way through the book, and now I’m on the road with five men I don’t know, all of whom are walking far away from the only character Miller has bothered to invest me in. It doesn’t matter that they’re her family—I have no idea who they are, how they relate to each other, or why I care about them. This isn’t a tragedy….just a mild discomfort, like being seated at a table full of the bride’s friends at a wedding reception you are attending solely due to a childhood friendship with the groom. Maybe I’ll end up loving my afternoon, but I’m half-way through the salad course and I’m not feeling optimistic.
I don’t want to doom my reading experience—I know that it’s easy for anxiety about a novel to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But so far it feels as though I’m in a novel that has been put together somewhat carelessly, and with very little attention to the critical elements of plot and character. It’s hard to tell what I can latch onto to get me through: we’ll see where I get to this weekend.