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MAY 2, 2010


Clarissa Burden is having a bad day. It’s hot, her marriage is stuck in a bad place, her writing is even worse. A two-time bestselling novelist, she hasn’t written a decent sentence in thirteen months. Instead she pours her mental creativity into fantasizing about the accidental (but not necessarily unwelcome) death of Iggy, her verbally abusive artist husband, sixteen years her senior. After seven years of marriage, Iggy largely ignores Clarissa and instead focuses his attention on photographing and sketching young, pretty nudes in Clarissa’s back garden. He hasn’t touched his wife in years. He resents and scorns her commercial success even as he milks the financial benefits. Things are not good.

Iggy and Clarissa are not the only occupants of the majestic old house Clarissa bought six months earlier. Nearly two hundred years earlier a Spanish woman, Olga Villada and Amaziah, her common-law husband, a free black under Spanish law, lived here with their young son, but were brutally murdered. Now, their spectral presences roam the house. Mysterious sounds—the strains of violin playing, the rolling of a child’s ball upstairs—distract Clarissa, as does the one-armed tree-cutter at her door, who is not what he appears to be. Even the fly in the kitchen (whose thoughts the reader is privy to) won’t leave her alone today.

Iggy, ignoring Clarissa, takes the car and flits off to lunch with the models, leaving Clarissa with only the decrepit old pick-up for transportation, which holds four months’ worth of decomposing trash. A trip to the dump commences a chain of bizarre events that will serve to change her life. A detour to a cemetery populated by the mournful, murmuring spirits of women and children who died from abuse and neglect. A stop at a roadside restaurant that produces a new friend and soon after, a new car. There is an encounter with a boy and his pet rattlesnake, the spectacle of a dwarf carnival being unloaded and set up outside town. Another visitation from the ghost family back at the house, where Olga Villada spectrally nudges a dossier into view, citing her as the original owner of hundreds of acres of land, the house, and including other burning facts, previously unknown to Clarissa.

One of Fowler’s particular skills as a writer is the interweaving the spirit realm within her stories. All get their chance to speak: the spirit women and children at the old cemetery; Olga Villada, Amaziah and their young son; the one-armed tree cutter, whose identity and purpose are ultimately revealed. Even the fly becomes a ghost here and has his say (a case of unrequited love toward Clarissa, even after she squashed him dead).

Despite this, however, there are times when the story comes off as curiously un-magical. Granted, the language is always polished and descriptive, with Iggy a convincing, if one-dimensional villain. The situations and secondary characters are quirky and lively. But the breezy humor, which has worked so well in Fowler’s other novels (notably in The Problem With Murmur Lee ) falls flat here. Sometimes, in truth, the prose approaches chick-lit goofy. Clarissa is counseled throughout the story by her “ovarian shadow women” a chorus of advisors whose voices alternately resemble Bea Arthur, Christiane Amanpour (a CNN correspondent, in case you’re dim like me and didn’t catch the analogy), the Wicked Witch of the West and a hero version of herself called Super Dame. They are soon joined by an inner Deepak Chopra who sports big red sunglasses studded with ruby rhinestones and spouts soothing New Age platitudes. Deepak and the Greek chorus of girlfriends are funny for the first few references, but soon lose their novelty and efficacy. And the fly’s digressions? They grow so annoying you just want to kill the damned thing to shut it up, only it’s a ghost so you’re pretty much stuck with it.

It’s as if Clarissa—and perhaps the writer—are caught up in jokey, digressive prose as a way to avoid exploring a bigger story here, the painful, difficult-to-tell one. Only the side stories of Olga Villada and her family, the trip to the cemetery, and references to Clarissa’s childhood under an abusive mother seem to reveal true heart.

Fowler has proven herself, in past efforts, to be a magical, wondrously talented writer, fearless about plumbing the depths of painful issues, including domestic abuse, alcoholism and death, but never without that touch of magic and redemptive love that tempers the story so well. Sugar Cage, her 1991 critically acclaimed debut, is deserving of all its praise. The voodoo mysticism, the humanity of the characters, the inviting way the prose allows you into each of the several narrators’ stories, all heralded the arrival of a talented writer, which she continued to demonstrate in ensuing novels. Before Women Had Wings (1996) is a riveting, bittersweet story with its young protagonist who allows us to witness the magic of youth right along the girl’s hardship and unspeakable pain. The Problem With Murmur Lee (2006) uses humor and lively characters to explore the life and tragic death of Murmur Lee, hitting such a pitch-perfect note that the reader can’t help but read and read. No easy feat, any of these. Difficult acts to follow.

In the end it takes Clarissa’s visiting writing friend, Leo Adams, a former student and admirer, to break the meandering, digressive bonds that seem to be holding both character and writer back. Over a shared meal of burgers and fries, Adams and Clarissa leaf through the dossier that reveals the full story behind Olga Villada’s house, the violence, destruction, racism and hatred. “This is your story,” Adams tells Clarissa. “This is what you ought to be writing.”

“She looked at him; his eyes appeared lit with a certainty that Clarissa could not bear. How could she explain that he had no idea what a dark and dangerous place her internal landscape really was? She wanted to agree with him. He would like that. It would make for nice chitchat. But she couldn’t. She could not lie about her current capacity—which was zero—to immerse herself in horrors committed by monstrous men. What amounted to a hypersensitivity to torture or cruelty […] prevented Clarissa from agreeing with Adams or admitting to herself that perhaps the story of Olga and Amaziah Archer was what the blank, mocking virtual pages of her word processor were waiting for. In her mind, the letters lined up: RISK. And then she revised the one-word directive, turning it into a two-word warning: TOO RISKY.”

In this passage, I felt like I was seeing Clarissa—and the author—the real ones and not the jokey, digressive ones, understanding their issues and fears, for the first time. Boom. Magic. And in the ensuing scene, the confidences exchanged with Adams, his words of support and empowerment, we find the redemptive love Clarissa’s story so sorely needs, giving her the power to finally confront the now-despicable Iggy and spread her wings and fly.

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is a very different book from Fowler’s other efforts. It’s like Connie May Fowler Lite. She is, nonetheless, a worthy writer to read, and while this effort might disappoint some fans, others might find this lighter touch to be more to their liking. Because, in truth, the full octane writing in her other novels can be heavy stuff indeed. But they are all treasures. They are a product of writer who has mined her inner landscape, probably at great personal cost, to produce some real gems.

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