I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.

April 1, 2017: Karen Brown

I first heard of Karen Brown when I opened a manilla envelope from Henry Holt. I used to get these sorts of packages more often, back when I was reviewing on a regular basis. Inside the package was a book–The Clairvoyantswith a haunting, soft-toned cover. The ARC was thick in my hand.

I always have piles and piles of books waiting to be read. But for some reason, shortly after it arrived in the late fall, I picked this one out of a stack. Maybe I thought I could read a few pages and quickly pass it on to someone else. But once I started reading it, I never stopped.

And The Clairvoyants is not the type of book I usually fall into. Rather, I tend to choose books with both feet on the ground. This one has a mystical element. Some have called it a ghost story. Call it what you will. I loved it.

Karen’s story “Galatea” was first published in Crazyhorse. Then Salman Rushdie chose it for The Best American Short Stories 2008. That story grew up and became this novel of 37 chapters.

Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter 1.

I was named after my great-aunt, a nun I first saw in my grandfather’s barn on my seventh birthday. The barn was in Connecticut, where I’d grown up, and Auntie Sister sat in her black habit on a bale of hay in a shaft of sunlight. Pieces of her dark hair snuck out of her wimple. I knew her from the photograph my grandmother kept in her living room–Sister’s pretty face framed by her coif, her head tilted to one side, her eyes laughing. My grandmother had two older sisters, Martha Mary, destined for the convent, and Rose, who would languish in the old Fairfield State Hospital in Newton.

This opening is solid and full of details–name, age, place, hay bales and wimples. Three pages later, here’s the last paragraph of Chapter 1. [spoiler alert]

I waited in apprehension for Sister to emerge from the barn and join us, but she did not. I would eventually learn that in 1962, driving back to the convent upstate with three other sisters after a convention of the American Benedictine Academy, Sister had been in an accident. A blowing veil, perhaps, had obscured the driver’s vision, and they’d all died on the New York State Thruway, many years before I saw her sitting in the sunlight in my grandfather’s barn. This explained her smooth, youthful face when my grandmother’s was creped and sagging, the outdated serge habit. It did not explain how I saw her, but I have never questioned what most people might. A door had opened and I had left it open and maybe because of that things happened the way they did. That was all I knew, and as a child all I cared to know.

Karen does such a good job of grounding us in reality that I am stunned but in an eerie, dawning kind of way to learn that what seven-year old Martha saw at the beginning of this chapter was a vision. Such good writing to have the older narrator use logic on that vision–no wonder she looked so young; she was dead already. And then right up front, the narrator points out what is not explained. And then the hook–maybe that’s why things happened the way they did. Karen leads the reader smack into the story.

There are lines I loved throughout. This one on page 79 will give you a feel for Martha’s character:

Talking to him had filled me with some sense of promise that I might become someone other than myself, and I wanted time to fashion this person. 

So often descriptions on the backs of books are hyperbole. Not this one.

Karen Brown’s most hypnotic novel to date–gothic-inflected psychological suspense that unmasks the secret desires of a young woman with a mystical gift.

The Clairvoyants is Karen’s second novel. The Longings of Wayward Girls was her first. She has also published two story collections–Pins and Needles, which won The Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, and Little Sinners, which won The Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the 2013 Binghamton University John Gardner Fiction Book Award.

Come back on APRIL 1st to read how KAREN BROWN spends her days.