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Book Review : Meandering Study of Female Anguish

December 01, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

A Narrow Time by Michael Downing (Vintage Books: $6.95, paperback: 229 pages)

The theme is the universal parental nightmare, the disappearance of a 6-year-old child on her way home from school. Though the situation is familiar, each case is fraught with new tension and suspense; the effect cumulative. Ignoring these built-in advantages, author Michael Downing behaves as if he distrusts his own choice of material, struggling to give "A Narrow Time" an additional dimension. The result is a novel that loses much of its inherent momentum in a welter of special effects and incidental digressions.

Downing has written the book in the first person, entirely from the mother's point of view, a choice that compounds his difficulties. His Annie Fossicker is an editor who had been working as a free-lance until her third and youngest child entered first grade. At that point, with her older daughter Patricia in high school and her son Paul a well-adjusted seventh-grader, Annie decides its time to re-enter the world on a full-time basis.

Her architect husband has certain misgivings, particularly when 6-year-old Sarah's after-school schedule becomes so complex that her mother buys her a daily planner of the sort favored by overextended executives.

A Background Figure

Perhaps because the author is concentrating so intensely upon Annie, Ted remains a shadowy background figure, so efficient and calm throughout the crisis that he seems cold-blooded. While he's clearly intended to function as a counterpoint to his introspective, guilt-ridden wife, he often seems too burdened with the responsibility of playing the Voice of Reason to be a father. And isn't there something a bit old-fashioned about these stereotypes--Daddy cool and collected, Mom seeing visions and hearing voices, showing every symptom of advanced hysteria?

The novel opens as the five Fossickers pay a last brief visit to Annie's parents, retiring to Arizona after a lifetime spent in Massachusetts. Observant Catholics, the Johnsons had opposed Annie's marriage to a divorced Protestant, and relations have been strained ever since. The three Johnson sisters apparently have little in common; their brother Richard is a sweet-natured drifter.

At first, the departure of the parents seems to come as a general relief. With her carping mother 3,000 miles away, Annie feels free for the first time in her life. Once the goodbys are said and the car pulls away, a long and difficult phase seems ended for everyone. Annie doesn't even give her parents the sentimental farewell letter she had struggled with for a month; a letter she now realizes is fundamentally dishonest. There had been no happy childhoods in that family.

Remarkable Alacrity

The school year is barely under way when Annie is paged at her new office by her frantic daughter Patricia, at home with the nun in charge of little Sarah's Brownie troupe. Sister Clare, alarmed at Sarah's unexplained absence, has broken into the empty house by thrusting her hand through the glass door. Badly cut and bleeding, she confronts Annie to announce that Sarah is gone. Within minutes, a police officer arrives and Sister Clare explains her panic. Pulling herself together with remarkable alacrity, the nun sets the search machinery in motion--pictures and descriptions written and in place even before Sarah is officially declared missing.

Annie is overwhelmed by guilt. "Choosing to become a working mother, I alerted my children to the fact that I was no longer readily available as a witness. That was it--I had cut off the only source of my childrens' ongoing sense of certainty." As if that guilt were not enough, she becomes obsessed with the notion that Sarah has disappeared because her mother has doubted the existence of God and abandoned most of the rituals of her faith. This could be God's revenge upon lapsed Catholics.

As the search escalates, Annie's mental state becomes even more anguished. While the police, the nuns at St. Cecilia's and the Fossicker's older children take charge, Annie seems paralyzed, tormenting herself with unanswerable metaphysical questions. When she should be engaging our attention and rousing our sympathy, she drifts away on a tidal wave of hysteria. The focus of the novel shifts completely to Annie's confused state of mind, turning the book into an extended and meandering exploration of female anguish in the age of liberation.

The wretched weeks drag on until finally a phone call from a woman professor in Chicago provides an essential clue to Sarah's whereabouts.

In the end, the central event of the novel becomes merely a dramatic hook upon which the author hangs his ambivalent feelings about the dilemma of modern women, remaining a spectator despite his strenuous efforts to masquerade as a participant. Annie Fossicker is no more than a conduit for the author's confusions, a hollow voice surrounded by relatives and friends equally beset by doubt and bewilderment.

Ultimately, "A Narrow Time" is not really about a missing child at all, but about the era in which the characters find themselves adrift.

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