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19 August 2005

Sights Unseen

By Kaye Gibbons

"In flashback, Hattie describes the summer and fall of 1967, when she was 12 and living in Bend of the River, N.C., and when her beautiful, psychotically volatile mother, Maggie, was temporarily committed to the psychiatric ward at Duke University. A near-miracle occurs: for the first time in nearly two decades, Maggie becomes stabilized on medication. And, for the first time in her life, Hattie experiences a mother who relates to, touches and cares for her. Gibbons tells this story of family dislocation and crisis in restrained prose of unflinching clarity, with a honing eye for the small domestic details that conjure a time, place and emotional atmosphere."

This book was a quick, engaging read with a solid sense of pace and character development, much like another of Gibbons' thoroughly enjoyable novels, the wonderful and moving On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon. Here Hattie, the adult narrator, reminisces about events from her childhood and up through her mother's death, mere weeks after Hattie has learned she is pregnant. I appreciate this style of narration - an adult speaking of childhood - rather than when an author chooses an excessively and impossibly perceptive child.

Hattie tells her family's story using her own flawed memory, sometimes inserting information supplied years later after conversations with other family members. Some misinformation is never corrected, some stories are never completed, and some moments are completely fabricated as she imagines how things might have been. As with life, there are events she can never fully interpret or understand, either because of her youth at the time or because of lost opportunities.

Hattie's mother, Maggie, is a raving manic depressive who determines and infiltrates every moment of her family's consciousness. They tip-toe around her when she is low, hoping to avoid her furious, fatiguing sadness. They run for cover when she is up, watching helplessly as she made plans to abandon her husband in favor of Robert Kennedy and called the only Catholic family they knew to find out what to serve him for dinner. Even the brief moments of wellness, of calm lucidity, are tainted by the need to watch constantly for signs of her next cycle beginning again.

I enjoyed the thorough, unflinching look at Maggie's illness, as well as young Hattie's unselfconscious and unsentimental yearning for her mother. Simple tasks. A kiss goodnight. A hand on the back of her head. Gentle, motherly gestures that I take for granted as joyous experiences with my children are denied to both daughter and mother because of Maggie's illness. However, the character of the family's benevolent African-American housekeeper, Pearl, was truly beyond belief - a super-mammy of unbelievable restraint and temperament. Her angelic patience, juxtaposed against Hattie's stern and bullying grandfather, Mr. Barnes, made for two near-caricatures that detracted from the emotional truth of the other family members.

In a strange series of events, the details of which are interwoven with flashbacks, Maggie’s involvement in a near-fatal accident provides her with the opportunity to receive the treatment she needs to become well. The last pages of the book offer a glimpse into the tense, suspicious road the family must travel after her 8-week hospitalization. Who is this woman who has come home to them? Can she stay? Will she stay? How to you become a daughter to a "normal" mother, a husband to a stable wife? The consuming center of their lives - Maggie's illness - is banished, but I would have appreciated a more thorough examination of her post-treatment homecoming. The last chapter is too brief to satisfactorily resolve all of those "sights unseen".

Quoted text appeared in: Publishers Weekly Jun 05, 1995; ©2004 Cahners Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc.

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