Some actions are unforgivable. Though our Western culture is steeped in a religion that exhorts us to forgive those who trespass against us, there’s not a whole lot of guidance on how to do that or how we should live if we can’t forgive someone. In Andre Dubus’s shattering new novel, Gone So Long, we follow a daughter and her grandmother who cannot forgive a man for murdering the girl’s mother. The novel builds and builds to the moment when daughter and father meet again after 40 years…but to get there we have to hear the whole story and its aftermath first.
Susan has been adrift since she was three years old, when her father murdered her mother in their ocean-side cottage. All her life, she’s been told that she’s a spit of her beautiful mother. Male eyes follow her the same way they followed her mother. She is constantly warned away from boys—who might do to her what her father did to her mother—by her emotionally damaged grandmother in harsh terms. Four decades later, Susan is married to the most patient man on the planet while she works on cathartic documents that move back and forth from novel-modeled-on-the-author’s-life to autofictional memoir. The documents bring up so much that she was repressing, so much that has lead her astray from her potential.
While we work our way through Susan’s current life and her memories, we also get her father, Daniel’s, version of events. We see his current life as an ex-felon who works re-caning and restoring old furniture. We also get, in letter form, a terrible tale of jealous. I was worried for long chapters that Daniel—and the narrative—would blame Susan’s mother for her own murder. Fortunately, Daniel squarely takes the blame. He was a jealous monster and he took a life. Daniel’s problem now is that so much time has passed without contact with his daughter that he has no idea how to even approach her, even if he knew what to say to her.
In addition to the book’s meditations on forgiveness and the potential impossibility of forgiveness, I was struck at the emerging theme of a person’s worth. Susan and her mother, along with other women mentioned in Gone So Long, are called cheap when they wear make-up and revealing clothing. When women are talked about as mothers, the speakers (Daniel, Susan’s grandmother, etc.) seem to elevate the worth of these women. I was fascinated by the way that language about money is repurposed to talk about a person’s worth to society and others, as if being considered “cheap” justifies others’ taking advantage or hurting women. This theme about worth and “cheapness,” I thought, did a lot to argue against any excuses that what Daniel did was justified. A person’s worth comes from the fact that they are human beings and should not be diminished because someone is jealous or judgmental.
Gone So Long is a slow novel. It’s an emotional, thoughtful novel. It’s the kind of novel that lingers in the mind long after you’ve finished it, because it contains a world of truth. The universe in this novel is realistically imperfect. The characters are so psychologically rich that I could easily picture them sitting in their hot Florida rooms as they wondered about themselves and what the hell they should say to each other. I wasn’t immediately hooked the way I was with House of Sand and Fog, but I’m glad I hung in there. I was more than rewarded by the end of Gone So Long. This brief review doesn’t do the book justice.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 2 October 2018.
Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend for readers who have unforgivable skeletons in their family closets.