The Already Falling-Away Moment: Sarah Stonich’s These Granite Islands

The book reads easily and quickly, but the slow action and gentle nature of Stonich’s prose conceals a powerful message of life, love, and the human condition: how we make meaning from our short lives.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

AUTHOR: Sarah Stonich
PRICE: $24.95, PAGES: 320
ISBN: 0-316-81583-7

In one of his most oft quoted lines, TS Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration/And at the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time (Little Gidding)”. The cyclical nature of time, and the way in which we keep returning to the place where we started, in an effort to understand the meaning of our lives is the overriding theme of Sarah Stonich’s beautiful and yet simple novel These Granite Islands. The novel is Stonich’s first, written on a series of grants from the McKnight Foundation, the Oberholtzer Foundation, the Ucross Foundation and the Ragdale Foundation. The book reads easily and quickly, but the slow action and gentle nature of Stonich’s prose conceals a powerful message of life, love and how we make meaning from our short lives; the human condition which forms the thematic backdrop of all good novels. One could say that These Granite Islands is the story of Isobel; a woman on her deathbed, remembering key moments in her past, bits of her history which have troubled her, and her attempts to come to terms with these moments, to work out their meaning. However Stonich handles flashbacks so smoothly that the time sequences don’t appear as though they were flashbacks at all, but rather part of the narrative present. Time moves in a cyclical rather than linear way, as the images gather, building upon one another, flashback linking to flashback, moving backwards and forwards in time until Isobel find her answer in the understanding of the whole of her life, the answers we are all seeking, at the moment of her death.

Although time cycles, moving across, around and back through nearly a century, most of the story occurs in the late 1930s. This is a world of sumptuous hats, hand-made clothes, and church morality, where the motor car had just begun to shrink the world. The heroine is an ordinary woman. A mother. A wife. A milliner. A friend. It is the way in which she experiences the world, her perception, which makes her extraordinary, Isobel’s involvement in her friend’s love affair and the impact of the mystery of Cathryn and Jack’s disappearance forms a focal point for her mental wanderings, those: “Seconds of clarity, a series of impressions etched into crisp scenes she could run through her head like a reel of vignettes”. (15) The writing itself is languid, descriptive. Stonich often sacrifices action to long paragraphs of exquisite scenery, all portrayed through the perceptions of Isobel primarily but also the bi-polar and fiery Cathryn, as she fights her periods of blackness, and trills and dances through the generosity of her energetic times. Although the scenery of Minnesota’s Cypress is beautiful, slow, dreamline, and even romantic, the writing rarely degenerates into overt sentimentality, opting instead for original metaphor, a kind of poetry: “The moon crested, tipping each wave with a pale lip until the bay swelled in an undulating field of black violets.” (260) There are a few moments, for example the details of Isobel’s pre-honeymoon night sexual encounter with her soon to be husband Victor, where the writing does border on a romance novel style: “She found herself pressing toward his mouth and felt his teeth over ridges of flesh her mother had told her never to touch except with soap and water” (179), but even then, the attempts at originality, to avoid the cliché and find a way to make the perception of Victor and her own sensual awakening personal, help to take the novel a step higher than the pulp which some of these passages mirror. Isobel’s awakening continues past Victor’s easy love into the mundane quality of her married life, where again, the search to find meaning beyond the day to day chores, to find a greater understanding in her love for her husband, her children and the pain and longings of her friend form the primary action of the novel. Cathryn’s affair, the fire and subsequent disappearance occurs outside the parameters of the book, experienced only as moments of silent in a watching canoe, or moments of recollection under a breathing tent. The novel is filled with silence, with observation, and solitude, as when the lights are turned off in the underground mine and Isobel is filled with the peacefulness of darkness. It is this sense of infinity which fills her with calm; a glimpse at the eternity and even beauty of her eventual death: “The next moments warped and stretched themselves into and out of focus, as though viewed in a poorly silvered mirror. Time and sight became unreliable, so that what seemed a full minute was only a fraction of a second.” (149) Death itself casts its presence over every moment in the book, as the story moves through Isobel’s life along with her last fight with pneumonia and preparations for her end. We can see the layers of this life; the moments which seem simultaneous, the “sky, the air, the snow, and her breath-back now and pouring freely from her nostrils like dragon’s steam – were reduced to molecules along with the brief seconds of the already falling-away moment. Time compressed itself into a crystalline trinket, lodging on the highest shelf of Isobel’s memory. A treasure. Kept there for her.” (28) Death is the home Isobel reaches for. It is the quiet time in a boat, her love for Victor, for her daughter, for Cathryn, it is all these things permanently compressed into a moment, a pencil point as dense as that which formed the first few moments of the universe, where everything is as one.