"Maison Cristina" by Eugene K. Garber

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In Maison Cristina we encounter Peter Naughton, an old man whose son has committed him to the care of Catholic nuns in a New Orleans facility for mental patients. Author Eugene K. Garber shows off his protagonist’s learning throughout the book. He’s a  teller of stories, a knower of arcane facts, an inveterate user and weaver of words. The nuns at the Maison enlist his help in treating a haunted young woman who has been scarred into silence. This is quirky, memorable, and affecting work.

Garber does not concern himself with clinical details as Naughton and the young woman, Charlene, become cured, or at least rehabilitated to the point of release. He spends his energy instead on twirling two spookily related narratives, the one with which Naughton regales the young patient, and the story of Naughton himself. As the novel progresses, these tales become intertwined, until at length, readers realize they have become one and the same. The quotation marks fall away; the character telling the story merges with the author. It’s an interesting effect, the author managing to bring greater immediacy to Naughton’s searching, yearning life, and his compelling stories.

I found the episodes describing his unstable family disturbing—they kept me at a distance. Clearly these are meant to ground Naughton’s own instability in the believable. For me, they felt diffuse and confusing. If Naughton is still hallucinating about dead or absent people, why is he being released from the hospital? The intermittent appearances of his personal demon is more of the same, in my view.

Naughton the character is the best thing in the book. Quite intelligent, supremely well-read, he acts with charity towards his fellow patients and unstinting deference towards the nuns charged with his care. Conversations with his therapist Sister Claire, and with Mother Martha, the director, unfold with kindliness and crackle with sagacity when dealing with recondite issues of language, mental health, and morals.

At length, these are what Maison Cristina is about. Don’t approach this book expecting logic when dealing with therapy or any dependable rendition of familial relations. If you seek startling images, elevated learning and language, and deep respect and affection between learned, well-meaning people, you will find these convincingly rendered, even instructive.



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