An intelligent writer chooses her form wisely, then leverages it to yield meanings that would be impossible if she relied solely on words. Form is a container, like a bucket or a vase. Even before we inspect the contents, the container gives us clues, or at least raises expectations. We don't expect our buckets to hold wine, nor our vases to hold battery acid. If a container holds unexpected things –- a bucket, say, filled with roses –- then that too yields meanings. And in the hands of an intelligent writer, those fresh meanings enhance the reading experience.
In form, The Good Works of Ayela Linde by Charlotte Forbes, is a collection of 16 short stories arranged chronologically. Each is told from the point of view of someone connected to the main character, Ayela Linde. Some of the voices are close to Ayela, like Concha the maid, who has served the Lindes all her adult life and continues to serve even on the night of her death. Others are removed but nevertheless fall within the orbit of Ayela's influence, like Pepillo, the gas station attendant who sells her a hand–carved swan and claims, as a consequence, that she has ruined his life.
Before we dip into the particulars of this book, already its form and arrangement alert us to some of the concerns that Forbes will explore. The book is about someone – Ayela Linde. She is enigmatic, unpredictable, even exotic. How are we to understand her? How are we to circumscribe her within a precise definition? Tacitly, these are the questions all the book's storytellers ask. The task, of course, is impossible. Forbes has created a fully realized character, and what makes her fully realized — her complexity and her depth — are the very things which make definition impossible. In a mysterious process that defies explanation, Ayela Linde presents a fullness of character which is more than the sum of the words which give her life. How is such a thing possible?
We have the beginnings of an answer in the way each of the stories approaches its subject. The various narrators tell of their relationship to her. We have whatever facts they care to note. We have their observations and their impressions. But all of it is refracted through the lens of their unique experiences. Really, the narrators tell stories of themselves, and Ayela is the occasion of their telling. For example, we have Doctor Teller (a telling name?), who has known the Lindes since the early days of their marriage and, now that Frederick has died, is concerned about Ayela's emotional health.
She agrees to visit the doctor's office for a friendly consultation. While sitting in his office, she notes a picture on the wall — the church at Del Rio — and they begin to reminisce about a trip years ago, four couples in two cars for a day together in Del Rio. Then Ayela makes an unexpected disclosure about the way she used to treat Frederick, something abrupt, which is her manner, and the doctor flees from the disclosure by seeking refuge in his clinical professionalism. "It was the kind of admission that made me want to race back to the world of blood counts and creatinine levels and albumin and uric acid. An ordered world, where I felt at home and in control of putting a name on what had gone wrong."
Ayela skirts along the divide between chaos and reason. Ultimately, she is undiagnosable. In this story, we learn less about Ayela than we do about Doctor Teller. In particular, through his responses, we witness a different disclosure. The doctor unwittingly tells us about his own anxieties.
We observe the same method more pointedly in "That Old Lady." This story is told from the point of view of a paroled youth who is working at the botanical gardens. One evening as he is closing up, he finds an old woman sitting by a banyan tree. He tells her that it's time to leave, but she is disinclined to move. In fact, she has packed herself a chicken dinner, a bottle of wine, and fully intends to stay the night. As with Doctor Teller's story, we learn from the young man's observations less about Ayela than we learn about his own personal anxieties. We detect intimations of a brutal childhood that has played itself out through law–breaking and difficult behaviour. And yet, for all his rebellious posturing, the elderly Ayela's free–wheeling desires are threatening to him. Beneath it all, he is a conformist crying to get out.
Both these examples suggest an answer to my question: how is it possible to create a character so fully realized? The trick is not to heap one detail upon another. Quite the contrary: here, Forbes offers a prose which is beautiful and lean. How can one not smile in pleasure at a sentence like this? "We lay dreaming and dozing until the dark began to drop away in clumps." Instead, the trick is to sprinkle a book with gaps, places which the reader can fill up with personal experience.
Just as the 16 storytellers look to a spare picture of an aloof woman in Santa Rosalia and discover a richness in the portrait that emerges, so it is for the readers who encounter this book. We arrive here with our own stories and discover points of intersection with Ayela's. These are not grand accounts, but simple ruminations. Maybe we have wondered, like Frederick, if in seizing certain of life's opportunities, we have denied ourselves other opportunities which might have answered our greatest longings. Like Xavier, the eldest son, we may have tried to assuage our guilt as we force our decisions upon an ailing parent. Or like Jesse, the youngest, we may have winced at our parents' entrenched foibles, only to realize with embarrassment that we have come from these people and may share more with them than we care to confess. We cannot look with clarity at the book; there are only glimmers refracted through our own ways of living.
There is a feature of this book's form –- its chronological arrangement –- which suggests another important concern: the passage of time. This is not so apparent in the first stories. Like youth, they are indifferent to the passage of time. Nevertheless, this concern is implied. The second story, "Flowers at Your Grave," tells the difficulty of burying Ayela's grandmother, whom the villagers believe to be a witch. They have their proof in the fact that all the flowers of the town are wilting, but they refuse to acknowledge the obvious fact that flowers wilt in scorching heat.
Here we find our first image of "ruination", which mounts in a crescendo until, near the end of the book, it screams for attention. By the end of the book we gaze upon an elderly woman in failing health whose once grand house has fallen into disrepair. She becomes preoccupied with the ruination all around her and most especially within her own body. But moving in counterpoint to this obsession are images, not of ruination's opposite, but of something which stands apart from the cycle of decay and rebirth, a timeless quality.
The young Ayela and her mother cannot bury her grandmother in the church cemetery, so Frederick intervenes. He rents a truck and they cart the body to a hasty gravesite somewhere else. As the burial comes to a close, everyone notes the unmistakable scent of roses. How odd. What sort of a witch would attract the timeless signs of the Virgin Mary?
As the book proceeds, we suspect that time does not proceed with the same precision. This becomes obvious in the final story, "Dreaming of You." This is told by Leyla (note the partial acronym), the grandchild everyone agrees most closely resembles her grandmother. It is now five years since Ayela died, yet she is fresh in Leyla's thoughts. In fact, Leyla suspects that her grandmother "insinuates herself into my thoughts and elbows her way front and center." Something is happening that is stronger than memory. Leyla, the promising artist, flees a dry and pretentious family gathering in Boston for the heat of Santa Rosalia.
She hopes to find evidence of her grandmother in the town where she had passed all her life. At first, she is disappointed. It seems no one can remember such a woman. But as the days pass, she discovers a memory of a different sort. Ayela's presence does indeed remain, but in a mysterious way that sidesteps the passage of time.
In the book's final sentence, Forbes shows that the two concerns I have teased out are really threads from the same cloth. Leyla expresses gratitude to her grandmother "[f]or the feeling of being out of time, beyond the tyranny of thought, wholly alone, and yet, for a moment, possessed of the expansive grace that ties one to all creatures." We learn of Ayela Linde through multiple viewpoints. Perhaps the good work of Ayela Linde is the "expansive grace" which connects these seemingly disparate voices so that none speaks in isolation, not even in the isolation imposed by the passage of time.
In The Good Works of Ayela Linde, Charlotte Forbes has produced a work lovingly crafted. It deserves a like measure of care in its reading. I have hinted at the richness which a close reading will yield. But don't expect too much unless you are prepared, like the narrators of these stories, to bring something of yourself to the task.Powered by Sidelines