This week’s installment in the Women Writers Wednesday series, a review of Sorrow by Catherine Gammon, comes to us from Geri Lipschultz. (Her bio appears later in this post.)
A Feminine Raskolnikov
This book is a deep cut into the human condition that was simmering in the 90s and is still simmering now, although now, we are letting some of the heat out. The timing of Catherine Gammon’s Sorrow could not be more perfect. Early on, the reader realizes just how dark the world of this book will be. Early on, we wonder where relief will come, what will justify this journey. What come to mind are such books as Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, Chronology of Water, Leslie Marmon’s Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, along with the obvious Crime and Punishment—cruel, disturbing, harrowing stories that do not fail to offer redemption. This book stays with you because of manner in which the sorrow is investigated, the way the main character acts out and acts in, how she implodes, how she relives in her words what the reader takes in and must relive along with her.
We meet Anita in her twenties, a young woman living in an apartment in NYC with her mother, having done so for more than fifteen years. The two of them have left the others of the nuclear family who still reside in L.A. For fifteen years the sorrow has been mounting for Anita. Little by little we hear about her history, a history of sexual abuse that begins to explain why she has casual sex, why her super Cruz Garcia seems to have this need to protect her, why Cruz Garcia’s nephew, Tomas, who arrives from war-stricken El Salvador, takes an interest, why the violence and the disturbance within Anita cannot be abated by her visits with Sister Monica, why the suggestion of holding babies just won’t cut it. I begin with a spoiler alert, because this book is not so much about what happens as it is about the why and how of it. Of course one confronts the “what” first, which might be considered the path of story’s concern with a crime and its resolution. The reader knows who done it, but it takes the suspicious detective a long time to come around. The details I will reserve for the reader, as the details are what Nabokov says must be “caressed,” and they are very much caressed in this book.
One reads Sorrow the way one reads and re-reads any book of literature, intuiting, dreading, possibly even knowing what will happen and wishing that it wouldn’t—wishing that somehow, something within this reading, the second or third, even, will morph, and the character will make a different choice. As if it were possible, as if there were language, as if she could speak.
The reader engages with the characters—all of them here deeply, fully, beautifully rendered, but it is primarily through Anita that we experience the action. We meet Anita at a time when she’s compelled to act. Something must be done. We see this, not knowing exactly, but there are clues. There is a knife, there are her meanderings, there is the general time that is a pre-war time in New York City, that becomes the first Gulf War, a depressing time. The story is as grounded in place as it is in character and the general circumstances of her life, a history that we will come to know as it reasserts itself, a history of profound abuse, more than even the reader can bear.
It might not appear that any one thing has precipitated this need of hers “to leave,” as she says on page two, and it will appear that this leaving is euphemistic for the ultimate leaving. A few words later, we find out that she’s thinking “she might even kill” this man she invariably meets in the elevator where she works. “He was a little blond-haired blue-eyed beetle of a man”—who, we are told, reminds her of a “flat toy man.” He is twice flattened, so to speak—the man, the first man of the book—there will be many, too many. The image of an insect, lowered to that of a one-dimensional thing—a toy, no less. As if this character could nullify the abuser, disparage the actual men, the men—one of whom we will also follow—who also preceded this man who is simply someone whose gaze she doesn’t appreciate. It’s a small moment, but it prepares us, it show us where she stands—as she sees herself, having just two options, between the choices of murder and suicide. We see an almost pitiless, unsentimental, articulate, desperate woman. She is not easy to place when this book opens, where we see her unthinkable plight clearly spelled out for us. It’s a book about a young woman trying to find an identity, a self, from within the projection cast upon her that she has had no choice but to interiorize. This is a book about a mother-daughter relationship. It’s a book about a disenfranchised mother, along with the significantly more disenfranchised daughter, along with a neighborhood filled with disenfranchised immigrants, along with Anita’s childhood friend Jimmy Rivers, an African American man held in custody for a crime of passion, who speaks of a police department not too different from the one that exists now, twenty years hence.
What Gammon has managed to do in this book, which was written twenty years ago, revised for its publication last year, is to give voice to the silenced, the disempowered, the disenfranchised. She has listened to their cries, and she has aired them, and she has been, as Eve Ensler has declared on the back cover, unflinching in her portrayal of the details. She has been generous in her depiction of character, one after the other, fully rounded, with rich backstories that paint the human condition in not so easily dismissed colors. One grows fond of this bunch gravitating around Anita: the bodyguard-like loyalty of Cruz Garcia, the would-be assassin Tomas, the self-deprecating Sister Monica. Gammon writes with prose that sings—calling attention to itself in the passion of the martyr Jimmy Rivers, and in the breakdown of language experienced by Anita, herself—and the effect is brilliantly, disturbingly stunning.
Gammon, Catherine. Sorrow. Braddock, PA: Braddock Avenue Books (2013).
Geri Lipschultz has a Ph.D. from Ohio University and an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared or will appear in New York Times, College English, Kalliope, Black Warrior Review, The Toast, Helen and 5X5, as well as in Pearson’s Literature: Introduction to Reading and Writing, Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II, and Up, Do (Spider Road Press). She was awarded a Creative Artists in Public Service (CAPS) grant from New York State, and won the fiction 2012 award from So to Speak. Her one-woman show was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr. You may find her on Twitter here: @alicebluegown1.
To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.
The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.