I have never met Lilian Nattel, but I feel I know her. The rink where she skates. The sound of her kids' laughter. The way she sees the world in which she lives. The photographs that thrill her. I read and loved her international sensation, The River Midnight.
I celebrated when her new book, Web of Angels
, was bought by Knopf Canada. I was honored, a few short weeks ago, when a copy showed up in my mailbox. I opened to the first page. I was stunned by the opening lines
. I thought I knew Lilian Nattel. But new books teach us new things about a writer's powers.
I have never read a book like this one. You haven't either. It's brave, unblinking, categorically generous despite a most heartbreaking subject matter. With Web of Angels
, Lilian isn't just exploring dissociative identity disorder—a condition that affects far more "ordinary" human beings than I had previously known. Lilian is inhabiting the mind of a woman in whom multiples live, which is to say that she is teaching us what it is like when several personalities—male and female, young and middle aged—argue for space inside the same body.
Sharon Lewis lives in a pleasant Canadian community called Seaton Grove. She is a mother of three, a loved wife, a friend. For years she has battled back the divisions in her own mind, but when a pregnant neighborhood teen kills herself and secrets begin to unravel, Sharon Lewis unravels, too. She blacks in and out of the familiar and strange. She struggles to save the dead girl's sister from a terrible and too-familiar haunting. To save the girl, she'll have to reveal her true selves. She'll have to rely on them to help her piece together truth.
There are big themes in this book. Big ideas. But what makes the whole so spectacular is how Lilian cushions the ugly things inside a beautiful, resilient domestic world. As awful as the secrets are, Web of Angels
thrives because of the way that Lilian tells the tale. Those searing household details. Those absolutely true snatches of conversation that happen among kids, between adults, inside the quiet of a therapist's room. It's not just the first page of this book that is so beautifully written. It's every
The baby's eyes were unfocused, her gaze not following theirs but open, large, taking in the light around objects as much as the objects themselves, for she was still closer to the source of life than the material world.
I know you want more. I will satisfy your craving:
Pipes rattled upstairs as water flushed down, flowing into larger pipes laid underground a hundred years ago when Seaton Grove's bylaws stipulated that no whole sheep or hogs or geese were allowed to run free in the streets on pain of a ten-cent fine. Before that the roots of a forest intertwined and Garrison Creek flowed between ferns. Now pipes connected the houses on either side, across the street, around the corner, their sewage led far away. That was how civilized people handled sh*t: pipe it; bury it. And they sacrificed the creeks, the streams, the living waters in order to do it, their land dry and quiet except for the sound of the sprinklers.
It's possible that we don't know how tired we are until we stop. I have needed to keep going. Today, after fighting a week's war with a wicked allergic reaction, I couldn't. For a few hours I did nothing at all. Then I picked up Lilian Nattel's new novel, Web of Angels
, which I have been stealing my way into every chance I could get. It's such a compelling book, such an important one, and the deeper I read into this novel the more convinced I am that Lilian has, with Web
, the book of a lifetime.
My mind has to be clearer before I put my reflections here, on the blog. But Lilian, between now and then, thank you for persevering with Web
, a book that took you many years and multiple drafts. The best books often do.
The older I get the less (certainly) I know and the less I also remember. (Indeed, I am at work on a memoir now, but for this one, I've taken notes all along the way—proof, I tell myself. Evidence.) But I do remember (I will swear on this) the first time I ever encountered Lilian Nattel's blog
. She had written about that northern lights phenomenon, aurora borealis. She had posted (as she will) an extraordinary photograph. I'd spent a few months in northern Alberta as a kid, fascinated by those night skies, and so I was enthralled by Lilian's post. We're going to get each other, I thought.
And so we have. We read with equal fervency. We opine on the things we see. We take our cameras out for walks. We threaten to go ice skating together. She's a Canadian and I'm a Pennsylvanian. But there is much that we share. When I read her novel The River Midnight,
I knew we'd be friends for a long time. When I follow her journey toward publication of her new book, Web of Angels,
I feel as though I am preparing for a launch of a book of my own.
And so, Lilian, I am so very grateful to you for your beautiful and loving read
of You Are My Only
—for settling in with it so quickly, for sharing it with your daughter, for ushering in my yesterday with an early morning tease on Facebook. The next time I cross the Canadian border, I'm strapping on a pair of skates, heating up my thermos of tea, and looking for you.
(The photograph above was taken at the Philadelphia Art Museum, this past Sunday.)
Whenever I see a sewing machine, I take a picture for my dear friend, Lilian Nattel,
a Canadian author and blogger who delights me with her wide-ranging world view, astute critical mind, and literary talents. She makes things, this Lilian. Seams stories together and fabrics, too. Lives the broad, bright life.
I've been saving this photograph, then, (snapped in November on Portobello Road in London) for a long while, for I knew that someday soon I'd have a chance to celebrate Lilian's new book on my blog.
That day is today. Or, I should say, the celebration begins today, for galleys of Web of Angels,
Lilian's novel about, among other things, dissociative identity disorder, have just arrived on my doorstep.
All I had to do was read the first two sentences to know that I was about to enter a compelling, well-drawn world. I'll leave you with those and return in a few days with a full report:
On a narrow street in the grey of dawn, in a row house with stained glass, a sixteen-year-old girl lay motionless. Her hair was blone, short, gelled in spikes, her legs unshaven, her pink nightgown straining over a nine-month belly.