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Book Review : Listening for 'Sound of Word' in Sexton's 'Points of Light'

February 16, 1988|ELAINE KENDALL

Points of Light by Linda Gray Sexton (Little, Brown: $16.95; 308 pages)

A day or two between reading a book and writing about it is usually long enough for reviewers to find their bearings. Plot and characters retain their original colors but judgment mellows and sweet reason prevails. None of that happened on schedule with "Points of Light." The subject is too fraught with emotional weight to be analyzed with cool dispassion, even after weeks have gone by.

While the book is structurally sophisticated and stylistically provocative, form and language seem almost incidental to content. Given the theme here, you find more generous definitions for excessive, sentimental and baroque and forgive or at least overlook the literally reproduced baby talk and the overwrought, clinically detailed accounts of childbirth.

Strangled by Toy's Cord

"Points of Light" turns on the death of a 2-year-old child, Jamie, strangled in his crib by the cord of a favorite pull toy. The narrator is the mother, an artist married to a New Hampshire farmer. There are two other children; Jamie's twin sister Meggie and 7-year-old Anna, but you know from the first page that Jamie is first among equals. When the book opens, Allie Yates is painting her son from memory, though he's playing happily just on the other side of the garden. "I didn't need to see my son to know his profile, the outline of his face, the texture of his skin and hair. I knew him better than I knew myself."

Allie writes affectionately about her husband, Sam; refers to her mother-in-law, Tobie, with respect and admiration, describes her two daughters with love and warmth, but the most lyrical passages are reserved for Jamie. The book is dedicated to the memory of the author's mother, the late poet Anne Sexton, "who taught me to listen for the sound of the word." The lesson was clearly indelible. "Points of Light," for all its explicit details of New England farm life, despite its digressions into the New York art world and its memorable secondary characters, remains essentially an elegy, mourning and commemorating the lost child.

First Meeting

In the course of the novel, Allie Yates relives her meeting with Sam when she first wanders into his meadow to paint; their immediate attraction to one another and the marriage that seemed so improbable to her family and friends. She describes her gradual and often difficult transition from independent artist and teacher to farmer's wife, doing a particularly fine job on the initial strains of living with Sam's mother Tobie, a formidably efficient woman whose brusque manner conceals amazing strength and sweetness. A sizable portion of the book deals with the acute loneliness Allie feels on this isolated farm, a solitude for which neither a sojourn in a furnished room in Manchester nor long hours at her easel had quite prepared her. Used to hard work and unfazed by poverty, she is still astonished at the grinding endless labor of even a relatively prosperous family farm.

A Welcome Friend

Though Allie never whines, she doesn't romanticize either. Sam has built her a studio in the attic and Tobie willingly helps with the babies, but the painting has to be wedged in and around the urgent demands of three young children, the needs of the horses and chickens; the cooking, cleaning, laundry for a family of six plus a farmhand. Being an artist doesn't exempt her from any of that. Allie manages to get her landscapes for a greeting card company done on time, but she hasn't much energy left for what she thinks of as her "real" work. For the moment, the children are fulfillment enough. They're all bright and winsome, but Jamie's precocious gift for art is particularly gratifying.

When Allie providentially finds a kindred spirit in the woods, a famous woman sculptor who has bought an adjoining farm, her world seems complete. She has her family, a remunerative job that may be prosaic but is nevertheless creative, and now a stimulating and sophisticated friend. Her spirits soar.

Talented Woman

Then, almost exactly in the center of this pastoral idyll about a talented young woman finding unexpected satisfaction in traditional roles, repressing her own ambition for the sake of her family, the tragedy happens. The second half of the novel is a harrowing exploration of grief in all its stages from acute agony through apathy, guilt and rage, followed by nightmares and hallucinations. After the descent into an abyss of pure anguish, the healing process gradually begins.

Although Allie's recovery will never be altogether complete, the canyon of loss that has separated her from her family and the rest of the world begins to fill in, to close. "Points of Light" leads you to the bottom of that desolate valley, then slowly out again, level by level.

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