by Carrie Snyder
Full Disclosure: Although I haven’t known her long, I consider Carrie Snyder a friend — she read a version of Mad Hope in manuscript form and gave astute and helpful feedback, and she’s recently offered me welcome advice re: Is it really possible for a 3 year old to require dental work? And, if so, as a parent, how to endure? Also, we will be reading together at three upcoming events, taking our short story show on the road. So you can consider the following less review than response — personal, but also, above notwithstanding, critical (in the careful, somewhat objective sense).
There is something so moody — no, mood-altering — about this book. It’s not always a comfortable read but it is always compelling. Why is this? I suspect it’s because Snyder is operating in a liminal space here, in a few different senses — thematically, generically, narratively.
The Juliet Stories is about being an outsider — how that feels — whether it be an outsider in a country not your own, an outsider as a child in an adult world or an outsider to your own inscrutable self. The first half of the book, set in Nicaragua in 1984, during the post-revolutionary war, traces 10-year-old Juliet’s life on the fringes of a group of American peace activists (including her parents), while the second, more fractured half, follows the adult Juliet as she grapples with the way her life has evolved.
Snyder excels at capturing and dissecting moments of apartness (not necessarily alone-ness or loneliness) wherein the narrator can intuit a subtext floating around but cannot quite name or access it. Mostly, however, the plucky Juliet takes this exclusion as permission, finds in it some freedom, a sense of ease and mischief. She shares this sense with her brother Keith, partner in crime, playmate, matter-of-fact conspirator. It is no great shame that the grown up world is closed to them — who’d wanna live there anyway?
As a novel-in-stories, the book borrows the best of both worlds. The short story form — with its compression of events, dismissal of the particulars of plot and preoccupation with small shifts in consciousness — is used to full effect, and the novelistic arc and recurrence of characters gracefully pulls a reader from story to story. The setting is less geographical than psychological, but excellent sensual details help ground the Nicaraguan section in time and place.
The narrative space Snyder occupies is a tricky one. We are crouched in close to Juliet but we are never limited (in the first half) by the particular constraints of her 10-year-old sensibility. The narrator has more perspective than the age of the character would suggest, more ease with language, a greater agility when it comes to articulating shades and shadows of emotion. Yet she is still very much bound to the child’s point of view. This is a difficult balancing act, but Snyder negotiates it nimbly. Here’s an example of a complex narratorial insight into not only the bit of dialogue it references, but the characters’ general situation:
It’s really very commonplace. It’s called war, and on the ground, running, its risks are mundane and it is only ever about circumstance, and people circling within circumstance.
And here’s another that simply catalogues Juliet’s innocence, although with a certain wry tenderness:
The boat heaves and plunges, temporarily weightless, awash. Juliet believes it is unsinkable. She also believes that taxis and buses never crash, that every movie that makes it to the theatre is objectively good, and that her own hands clasped in a certain special formation across her waist will act as effectively as a seatbelt in a moment of emergency.
In the second half of the book, a family tragedy has forced Juliet’s return — to the US, then to Canada — and her self scatters a bit, disperses as we leap forward in time and experience viewpoints of others in her family. But even this dispersal seems fitting — Juliet’s stay in Nicaragua has become such a touchstone (or amulet) in her life that it makes sense that it would shine and cohere (mythically, almost) in a way that the subsequent incidents in her adult life fail to.
The sum of these parts is a lovely meditation on the meaning we create with the gifts and flotsam of our lives. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Snyder’s prose, which is so very clean and delicate. It’s as if the writer (and her editor) have taken a little brush to every sentence, clearing them of unnecessary dust and debris and placing them, ever so gently, on the page. The Juliet Stories is a wonderful book, truly a work of art. Carrie — deepest congratulations! And the rest of you — if you haven’t already — read this book! It will move and discomfit you as only the very best stories can.