Friday, January 2, 2009

Effigy by Alissa York (a review)

Effigy: A novel
4.5 out of 5: Effigy is a historical novel about a polygamous Mormon family living on a Utah farm during the nineteenth century. Although larger historical events play a role in the story (particularly the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857), the focus remains firmly on Erastus Hammer and his four wives. York creates distinct identities and voices for Erastus, each of his four wives, his eldest son, and two of the farm workers. As the story unfolds, the point of view shifts subtly from character to character, revealing to the reader the larger picture that is hidden from the individual characters. While nothing changes in the family’s external world for the majority of the book, the inner turmoil revealed by the ever-shifting perspectives keeps the story moving. The only real action occurs at the very end of the book, but when it happens, it seems like the inevitable outcome of the combined forces and frictions built up over time. At its core, Effigy explores the link between actions and their consequences, hinting at a greater power that metes out deserved outcomes based on prior decisions.

York’s prose is poetic and oblique, requiring careful attention to glean its full meaning. This passage, describing one the Tracker’s perceived encounters with his dead wife, is indicative of York’s complex style:

She came to him for the first time then, his whirlwind wife, cool and drilling in the runnel of his spine. He knew her instantly, and the knowing nearly choked him with grief. Whether it was jealousy or something finer that had summoned her, the Tracker couldn’t know. Sorrow, perhaps, or rage at having been forgotten, even for a moment, when she was barely six moons gone. He reached behind him with both hands to comfort her. Felt a shock like mountain runoff and then she was gone.
The above passage is written in the voice of the Tracker, a Native American employed by Erastus to help with hunting game for the family’s table. Seemingly without effort, York employs a different voice for each of the eight primary characters. The below passage captures Erastus’s voice, which is brasher and less sensitive than the Tracker’s:

He’s a Missourian born and bred, the cruelest persecutors of God’s people thus far. Never mind how he hated that river-soaked swatch of land. Not the river itself, though, the silty Grand muscling its way through his childhood, calling out to him from its catfishy snags. He only rarely penetrated its depths. He was too busy coughing up yellow batter in the Hammer Gristmill, or getting bitten raw by mosquitoes when he was lucky enough to work outside.
York masterfully weaves these diverse voices and plot lines together to create a dark and beautifully crafted novel.

1 comment:

Martin Cohen said...

York's a talented writer, but she's in the terrible position of being technically skilled and creatively bereft. Put simply, she can scribble with the best of 'em, but she can't give you anything that makes you want to turn the page. Effigy was like grim death couple with the most heavy-handed tropes since Buckler's valley. I'm really starting to tire of these long suicide ballad novels that centre on female protagonists choking themselves to death. Give the reader some kind of plot. York just ties her prose to a stick and waves it in the reader's face. Not good enough.