This has been an odd reading and blogging year so far. I’m only reviewing about one in four or five books I read. Not only because I’m sometimes disappointed in my choices but also because I don’t have enough time to review them. But when I come across a book like Lee Martin’s The Bright Forever and know it will be on my favourites list at the end of the year, then I have to review the book or, at least, write about it.
The Bright Forever was a Pulitzer Finalist but I hadn’t heard of it until I discovered Lee Martin via his blog and a nonfiction flash class he taught online at WordTango.
The novel is set in a fictional small town in Indiana in 1972. It’s a hot summer evening and nine-year-old Katie Mackey, daughter of the richest man in town, takes her bicycle to bring back her library books. She never returns home. Told from the points of view of different narrators, the novel explores a crime and its aftermath, explores themes of loneliness, guilt, shame, and the desperate struggle for happiness.
This isn’t a crime novel, it’s a literary novel about a crime but it’s just as suspenseful as a crime novel. For the longest time we don’t know what happened to Katie, nor who is responsible.
The choice of narrators is not only great and gives the novel depth but it’s also extremely well done. Lee Martin manages to give each of his narrators a very distinct voice. Not an easy thing to do. First we have Katie’s older brother Gilley who feels responsible for the disappearance because he ratted out his sister. He told their parents that she forgot to return her library books. The next narrator is Mr Dee. A lonely, older man who teaches math. He is a bit too fond of Katie. We’re never sure whether his feelings for her a really fatherly or whether he’s a pedophile. This makes him creepy and touching at the same time. Clare is another narrator. She has done the unforgivable. Shortly after her husband’s death, she starts a relationship with a foreigner, Raymond R. Raymond’s voice is the last. He’s the most problematic figure. The most enigmatic and dishonest. Needless to say, that more than one person looks guilty.
Chosing so many narrators allowed Lee Martin to explore many different topics and to depict his characters from many different angles. We see how they perceive themselves, but also what others think about them. In Mr. Dee’s case that’s particularly poignant, We know he has secrets, but we also know something he ignores— some of the villagers know his secrets. This creates a mirror effect that is very arresting.
While I liked the story and the characters, the thing I loved the most was how Lee Martin captured those lazy summer days that seem to never end when you’re a kid or a teenager. It’s also admirable how he shows that even small town people’s lives are complex and full of pain, mystery and beauty.
The Bright Forever is a stunningly beautiful, mellow novel. It is told in lyrical, evocative prose, which suits this bitter-sweet, nostalgic tale so well. I’m not a rereader but I think this is one of a very few books, I’ll pick up again some day.
Here are some quotes to give you an idea:
That dream was still in my head, that crazy dream about Katie and me on Dumbo the elephant and Mr. Dees walking in the clouds. When I opened my mouth, the dream was on my tongue, as was the feeling that I’d had ever since–the sensation that sometimes life was so wonderful it was scary, not to be trusted.
Here’s Clare talking about Raymond
I think it was this: like most of us, he was carrying a misery in his soul. I don’t say it to forgive what he done, [sic] only to say it as true as I can. He was a wrong-minded man, but inside- I swear this is true- he was always that little boy eating that fried-egg sandwich in that dark hallway while the steam pipe dripped water on his head. I don’t ask you to excuse him, only to understand that there’s people who don’t have what others do, and sometimes they get hurtful in their hearts, and they puff themselves up and try all sorts of schemes to level the ground- to get the bricks and joints all plumb, Ray used to say. They take wrong turns, hit dead ends, and sometimes they never make their way back.
And Gilley looking back
I thought to myself then that it didn’t matter where I ended up; I’d always be living that summer in that town, wishing that I had done things differently, tormented by the fact that I hadn’t. I’d never go far enough to be able to escape it. Maybe you’re happy about that. Maybe not. Maybe you’re carrying your own regrets, and you understand how easy it is to let your life get away from you. I wish I could be the hero of this story, but I’m not. I’m just the one to tell it, at least my part in it, the story of Katie Mackey and the people who failed her. It’s an old one, this tale of selfish desires and the lament that follows, as ancient as the story of Adam and Eve turned away forever from paradise.
And one more
When someone you love disappears, it’s like the light goes dim, and you’re in the shadows. You try to do what people tell you: put one foot in front of the other; keep looking up; give yourself over to the seconds and minutes and hours. But always there’s that glimmer of light-that way of living you once knew-sort of faded and smoky like the crescent moon on a winter’s night when the air is full of ice and clouds, but still there, hanging just over your head. You think it’s not far. Your think at any moment you can reach out and grab it.
20 thoughts on “Lee Martin: The Bright Forever (2005)”
Wonderful quotes, Caroline. I don’t often read modern novels, but this sounds very much like one that I would!
I thought it was fantastic. And he’s so good at suing different voices, capturing the way they speak. I think you might like it. Beautiful prose and so full of compassion for his characters.
Sounds intriguing. I’ll put it on my list!
I think it’s really worth reading.
Thanks to your review I immediately picked up the book from my library! I am so looking forward to reading the book.
That’s great. Let me know how you like it. I loved it.
It’s an interesting set-up for a story, especially given the multiple perspectives. Something about the way you described it made me think of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong trilogy set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. I think it’s the setting and your commentary on the nature of people’s lives in a close community – steeped in pain, mystery and beauty. I don’t know if you’ve read Haruf, but if not he’s definitely worth a look.
Ha! I haven’t read him yet but I remember your review and the book totally made me think of your review. I would say Lee Martin is comparable in terms of style too.
There are also parts written in 3rd person, not only 1st persone. Those work very well too. I think you’d like him.
Ha, well there you go! Haruf is a wonderful writer, and I feel sure you would love Plainsong – even though it’s the first in a trilogy it can be read as a standalone work. The Martin sounds as though it might be good for a book group, so I’ll bear it in mind. 🙂
I’m a bit biased when I hear the word “book club” but possibly it would work. It’s very literary though. Not genre at all.
Great review Caroline.
This story sounds so tragic.
The fact that this a Literary work as opposed to a Suspense makes it seem so much more appealing to me.
Thanks, Brian. As you know, I love genre but I’m even more partial to books who tell a suspenseful story in beautiful prose and with an original structure. I’m pretty sure you’d like this one.
Literary novels about crimes can be some of the best IMO. I’d never heard of this one, so thanks for the tip.
I agree. He’s also got a story in Best American Crime 2015. And a new novel but I haven’t looked into that yet.
Wonderful review, Caroline–made me want to run out and find the book immediately. Writing from different perspectives is so impressive. I really enjoyed that in The Poisonwood Bible.
I also enjoyed Plainsong and want to read the rest of the trilogy.
Thank you, Carole. I felt lukewarm about a few books recently so thus was such a pleasant surprise. I hope you’ll like it. I need to read Haruf. I’m pretty sure I’ll like him. I loved the mood and the atmosphere in this one.
I think Haruf is probably much lighter in tone, but still enjoyable.
Good to know.
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