Guest Post by Kevin Brown
Absolution, Alice McDermott’s latest novel, is technically an epistolary novel, though it doesn’t read like one. It’s an exchange of only three, long letters between Tricia and Rainey, mainly focusing on Charlene, Rainey’s mother. Tricia and Charlene met in Vietnam as the war was beginning there, both married to men who worked for the American government, but who were not actually part of it or the military. Rainey was a young girl then, but she remembers Tricia and reaches out to her to inform her of the death of a common acquaintance.
Charlene is, as almost everybody describes her, a “dynamo,” always working to try to do good, whether that’s raising money for toys and candy for children in the hospital or visiting a leper colony to provide them with nice clothing. Tricia is much more passive, but Charlene is able to use her shyness as a way to get other women to invest in her ideas, passing them off as Tricia’s.
The novel portrays the women, even Charlene, as hemmed in by their gender, exploring their role in a place where they have no choice but to be, much like the soldiers, but for a very different reason. The main question of the novel, though, is who needs absolution and why: while the obvious answer is the U.S. government and those associated with the horrors of the war, there’s enough unspoken guilt in this world to go around.
Absolution by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2023.
Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite