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Mother and Daughter Disunion : SUSPICIOUS RIVER. By Laura Kasischke (Houghton Mifflin: $22.95, 271 pp.)

August 04, 1996|Erika Taylor | Erika Taylor is a regular contributor to the Book Review

Many years ago, my father told me a story that I have never forgotten.

He was taking a late night stroll down the beach when a woman approached and asked for a light. She was accompanied by four men. As he lit the woman's cigarette, her companions waited impatiently, staring at her in a way that was both hostile and overtly sexual. "Are you OK?" my father asked softly. "Yes," the woman answered. She looked very young in her flowered sundress, and my father was concerned that she had innocently gotten in over her head. "Do you know what's going to happen to you here?" he asked. "Yes," she said again. Then the woman walked off toward a group of rocks while the men closed ranks around her.

Why would she do that, my father wondered when he told the story. For me, the mystery lay in trying to imagine her thoughts and feelings during those moments. "Suspicious River," poet Laura Kasischke's impressive first novel, answers those kinds of questions and others in a story that is profoundly disturbing but also resonant with hope and rebirth.

Leila Murray is a young, attractive married woman who works as a receptionist in the Swan Motel, located in Suspicious River, a small town "on the pinkie of that fat Michigan hand." Her life is normal, boring even. Then one day, almost as if an internal timer hits zero, Leila begins to quietly sell sexual favors to the male guests.

She does not spend any of the money she makes as a prostitute, saving up, instead, for something she can't quite identify--"Something that rose and fell in a fog, changed shape and size, something I might have glimpsed once from the corner of my eye as a child. . . . Sometimes it rose to the surface of my dreams like a second skin, a kind of foreskin floating to the top of a pan of scalded milk or dragging the snow in a long white robe . . . I assumed I'd see it when I'd saved the money to buy it."

What Leila finally buys isn't apparent until the very last page, yet she's purchasing small pieces of it throughout the book. One of those pieces is Gary Jensen, a manipulative little sociopath who is first a customer, then a lover and finally Leila's pimp. Gary makes Leila feel like "something feathered and skinned being dragged out of a river, breathing." Yet she believes she loves him.

Over time, Gary manages to isolate Leila from her meager support systems until she is completely dependent on him for everything. And it is then, when a truly dangerous man has staked a claim on her psyche, that Leila must decide if and how she wants to stay alive.

"Suspicious River" has two concurrent plots. In addition to Leila's present life, Kasischke gives us scenes from her childhood. These sections not only provide an explanation of why Leila behaves the way she does, they also add tension. Leila's mother was murdered by her lover when she was 24, the same age Leila is during the present-day action. She was also a prostitute. After the murder, Leila is shunned with an almost superstitious dislike by the women in town, while many of the men use her for sex starting at an early age.

"Those men put their noses to the breeze and they know which girls will . . . never tell a soul, shame snaking a thin blue thread through their veins." As the parallels between Leila and her mother mount, it becomes increasingly clear where all that prostitution money is going. By giving herself over to sexual violence, Leila is, in fact, buying the options that will define her life. Will she become her mother or not?

Kasischke's writing overflows with violence. A rosebush blooms, "red and sudden as a car wreck." An automobile drives with its tires "spewing up gravel and crunching it like jaws." The bed Leila and her husband sleep on when they are newlyweds "squeaked like a small dog being beaten with a stick." Often the violence is strongly implied rather than stated, which makes it even more effective.

"Suspicious River" depicts a surreal kind of suffering. It pinballs round and round between the same images, a repetition that--coupled with the horrifying specter of Leila's past--gives every event a spooky weight, as if it were all predetermined by some dark god. Another strength is Kasischke's ability to sink us into Leila's point of view. Nothing exists for her outside the dreamlike parameters of red and white, blood and feathers, so that the option of, say, calling a shrink or leaving town is out of the question. Within that world, everything she does makes perfect sense, even to us.

"Suspicious River" is an extremely powerful debut, because Leila's story feels emblematic of those told by so many others. Their spirits are an almost tangible presence throughout this beautiful, troubling novel.

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