My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In her debut novel, award-winning poet Kate Gray breaks the surface of a calm New England boarding school to tell a breathtaking tale about honor, violence, and responsibility.
Set in 1983, in the days after Taylor Alta loses her best friend and beloved to a rowing accident, she arrives at St. Timothy’s as its girls crew coach, grieving and unprepared for the curiosity of eighteen-year-old Carla. Carla’s interest is uncomfortable and hyper-sexualizated, a behavior rooted in her dark history. It’s a past whose consequences also blur the teacher-student boundary with Jack Song, a Korean science teacher who tries not to fall for her.
These narratives connect to the bullying of brilliant oddball Kyle Harney. Taylor, Jack, and Carla have secrets that shame them, and each finds a brief moral balance in their concern for bullied Kyle. What they can’t know is the weight Kyle himself carries, burdened by the threat of nuclear annihilation: a threat he understands all too well from his mother, a Japanese woman scarred in the bombing of Nagasaki. The leitmotif of origami pays off well as the diverse planes of each characters’ suffering begin folding together around the shape of Kyle’s ultimate plan for getting back at his tormenters.
For all Jack Song’s concern with honor, it is Kyle who feels like a moral axis. Secrets and injustices drive the story (as does the insider’s look into the world of competitive rowing; Gray is a former crew coach). Yet Kyle is the only character who keeps no secrets, and is unable or unwilling to be anyone except himself, even when it earns him brutal retribution from the school bully. He harms no one, and he felt sometimes to me like an existential ideal: a fully aware, moral being who chooses what customs to follow, and who sees his own life as a choice. It’s a painful irony that in choosing nonviolent retaliation, the people who end up suffering most are himself and the people who loved him.
While the story itself is robust, Gray’s attention to language makes the writing one of the novel’s most important elements. It sometimes competes with the story itself, but at its best, the characters’ distinct voices resonate with their different notes of pain; and in Jack’s chapters, the writing riffs between the world of science and the mysterious realm of the heart—with surprising, ingenious effect.
Kate Gray is amazing.