New York Times bestseller Away (Random House) by author Amy Bloom was first published last year and is already in its 10th printing — a bit of a feat considering readers are buying fewer books these days and the publishing industry is in a bit of a slump.
That's a story for another time. Bloom's career, it's worth noting, shows no signs of slumping. The author of four works of fiction, including Love Invents Us and the nonfiction book Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Cross-dressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (reviewed here by Xpress) has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Away is a novel of a different sort: A historical account of one woman's journey from war-torn Belarus to the promised land of New York and the wilds of the American West, circa 1924. Though the story follows main character Lillian, a young woman reeling after witnessing the brutal murders of her parents and husband and the loss of her young daughter, Away is not limited to the perspective of an immigrant Jew trying to make her way and carve out a life in a new world -- it's also the story of American immigrants in general, given faces and names.
Bloom crafts this tale through the characters of father and son theater moguls the Bursteins, who subjegate fellow immigrants so that they can live higher on the hog. There's Yaakov Shimmelman, Lillian's benefactor, a man so obsessed with death that he assists Lillian in her own death-wish quest to find her lost daughter. There's Chinky Chang, daughter of Asian missionaries, who befriends Lillian in a woman's prison and Gumdrop Brown, an African-American prostitute who rescues Lillian after a robbery. Gumdrop — like some of Away's many characters — isn't an immigrant, but she subsists on society's underbelly, carving out an uncertain existence and reinventing herself as means of survival. "...Gumdrop is a professional, a professional with a specialty, and her specialty is The Little Girl," Bloom writes. "Gumdrop is the colored Mary Pickford, and Lillian says so, and Gumdrop smiles for the first time."
The thread of Away traces Lillian's travels — from New York's sewing rooms, to her welcome role as mistress to both the elder and younger Burstein, to her nightmare-fueled desire to return to Odessa to find her daughter, who she's learned may still be alive. That trip takes Lillian from crowded New York across unsettled portions of the U.S. by train, ship and mule pack. The journey is endless, often fruitless, frequently violent. But it's against this dangerous backdrop that Bloom composes elegantly poignant prose. "His beauty makes her cautious," the author writes of one of the mule drivers. "There may be no reason for caution — he might be kind and loyal, with six children and a wife he cries to leave — but his beauty entitles him to more, and worse, and Lillian thinks that she would be no better than Mrs. Mortimer, trying to hold water in a pair of cupped hands."
What is sometimes strange, even unsettling, about Away, is that as each character leaves Lillian's life, the author follows that passage with a few more paragraphs in which the reader is given an overview of the rest of that character's life. It's like a fast-frame treatment, or the epilogue after a movie's final scene. But, though the ends are neatly tied, the sense is of a slight of hand — after so much suffering, a quick and clean finish feels like too much of an aside. A glossing over. And then there's the issue that, the end of one story dealt with, the reader is returned to the untidy narrative of Lillian's arduous and seemingly endless tribulations.
Overall, Away is deeply engaging. The characters and slightly suspenseful plot verge on addictive and though Lillian is a tragic heroine, it's hard not to root for her.
Amy Bloom comes to Malaprop's on Sunday, Nov. 16 for a 5 p.m. appearance. The event includes a pre-reading wine and cheese reception. Info: 254-6734.
Also this week:
Robert Morgan, author of Boone: A Biography (the 2008 Together We Read pick, gives a talk on Appalachian identity in UNCA's Laurel Forum at Karpen Hall. The event takes place on Friday, Nov. 14 at 3:30 p.m. Info: 251-6632, 505-1973, www.togetherweread.org and thereadonwnc.ning.com.
— Alli Marshall, A&E reporter