"Before We Sleep" by Jeffrey Lent

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At the end of Jeffrey Lent’s Before We Sleep, Katey Snow must call her mother. She’s spent an eventful week on the road, having taken her father’s truck on an extended sojourn from Vermont to Virginia, but her imperative is to speak to her mother, from whom she had a fraught departure. The two characters, Katey and her mother Ruth, carry this graceful novel, and have alternating chapters named for each in turn. In Mr. Lent’s usual style, their stories unfold at an even pace, their revelations laid out in a magisterial and majestic tone. Another beautiful and gratifying book from Mr. Lent.

Salient events begin with yet another verbal set-to between Katey and her mother. This story, set in the mid-1960s, captures the era’s terrible tension between parents and teen-age children; Katey sees things simply and in straightforward terms, as 17 year-olds do, but her mother sees the same things in terms of threat to be avoided, and stridently challenges her daughter at every turn. One tense evening holds more of the same as mother and daughter go at it  hammer and tong yet again.

Oliver, the father and husband, sits by as usual, but then, perhaps fed up by the constant bickering, lets fall a bombshell. It is a revelation that sends Katey off on a journey, one in which she discovers certain things about herself and her mother, which lend a new perspective to her life.

Mr. Lent deals with the heart’s agendas in unique ways. He makes his characters’ thoughts and feelings so abundantly clear, and in such plain language, that we find our journey with his characters rewarding and believable. This is a sympathetic group - Mr. Lent has a way of making you love his novels’ populace. 

This novel follows Katey’s journey from indignant youth to sadder-but-wiser young adult in a matter of days. This speeded-up time frame allows for Katey’s progress - it is an eventful trip, as I say - and enough happens that she graduates into a much more nuanced and understanding view of Ruth. Ruth’s own narrative includes the horrifying truth about Oliver’s wartime experience in Germany, and how he and her life are altered as a result of it. Katey’s trip involves meetings with a gallery of strangers, each described in chiaroscuro-type clarity in which Mr. Lent specializes, and which I find kind of a drug.

In temporal setting and theme, this piece allies itself more to A Peculiar Grace than to the epics Mr. Lent has set in days of yore: Sleep and Grace portray young people coming of age through their own particular trials on the way to reflective and wise adulthood. 

The speed with which Katey’s point of view shifts reflects the shock of her experience with true independence. Ruth’s position as a teacher gives her a close-up view of the novel vagrancies of 1960s high-schoolers; in her mind this warrants her carping over her daughter’s direction in life, although frankly there’s nothing much alarming there. As always, Mr. Lent achieves a deft touch with the simplest language. Conversations are real-life oblique and laconic in New England style. Real human growth through everyday striving and stumbling - these are Mr. Lent’s stock in trade and they are fully on display here. Take this one up by all means!

"The Water Diviner and Other Stories" by Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer

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New author Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer won the 2018 Iowa Short Fiction Award by hewing close to the theme of the culture shock experienced by immigrants to the United States from Sri Lanka. In “The Water Diviner and Other Stories,” these uprooted people react and adjust - or fail to adjust -  in a wide variety of ways to the strange American customs and culture. Their stories are told in effective and unadorned language; the emotions and tensions are plainly depicted, sometimes lurking below the surface, sometimes erupting strongly into the open.

There are the childhood friends visiting in young adulthood, in which old grievances prove surprisingly durable (“The Beauty Queen”); in “The Water Diviner” a woman emerges from the thrall of a televangelist to turn once again to her “real” life when a prophecy turns false. In “Sunny’s Last Game” immigrant parents find reason to back off their tendency to over-protect their junior-high student son. The urge arose from perceived slights inflicted by classmates. 

In one of the more interesting pieces - among 15 absorbing stories collected here - “The Lepidopterist” portrays the struggles of a girl who treats everything she reads and everything everyone says as strictly - abnormally - literal. However she grows to become a scientist spurred by her childhood fascination with butterflies. She triumphs over the prejudices she faced as a young girl, and this is often the case with other characters whose talents and attitudes serve them well and provide the basis for success in life, in the U.S. or Sri Lanka.

It is plainly the skill in executing these stories that won Ms. Vilhauer the award. Pacing and structure, characterization and treatment of theme, all bear the stamp of an accomplished fiction artist. These stories feature both variety and clarity: characters are found and portrayed in very different circumstances and stages of the assimilation process - often within a single story. It’s a pleasing, impressive display taken together. Congratulations once again to the jury giving the Iowa short fiction awards. This is another deserving winner.