January 10, 2002
Love in the Time of Snakes
"Sunday's Silence" by Gina Nahai
(Harcourt Brace, $24).
"Is Truth more urgent than Desire?" That's the poignant question posed by the beautiful Blue in the opening of "Sunday's Silence," the newest novel by Gina Nahai. It is a question that Nahai herself makes tantalizingly difficult to answer as she intertwines both Truth and Desire as insidiously as the snakes that are the center of this compelling story.
In the summer of 1975, Adam, a journalist, returns from a two-decade reporting stint in Beirut to his despised hometown in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky to confront Blue, a woman recently accused of killing Little Sam Jenkins. A 90-year-old snake charmer and leader of the Holy Rollers, Jenkins also happened to be Adam's father, a man who has abandoned his many wives and children to convert the masses.
If it sounds complicated, it doesn't feel that way: The Truths here are delicately woven throughout the story, building up the characters' Desires so that they often overshadow and mitigate the facts. Adam, the grandson of a Holy Roller woman and son of her rebellious daughter who tempted Jenkins momentarily and then abandoned her son in an orphanage, is motivated by a desire to flee from his past and somehow redeem it. Sister Blue, the young ethereal foreigner brought to America by the her fragile husband, the "Professor," is fighting to overcome the suspicions that she had murdered Jenkins by handing him the snake that finally killed him because she was avenging being shunned from his church. And Jenkins, who as a boy discovered God by taking poisonous bites from snakes, as an adult, had turned himself into a leader of many, despite his sins of the flesh. In his mysterious death, he brings Adam and Blue together.
And together they are, almost from the first instant: "And [Adam] thought how strange that he had glimpsed Blue for such a short while, but that she would manage to cast her colors into Adam's life forever...."
Because that's how it is in Nahai's stories: People fall in love instantly, almost without reason or intellect. And they hate just as viscerally, on sight, ruled by their passions. Her characters don't blow their noses or have screaming matches and other stuff of modern times; or if they do all those things, they do it more poetically: "Making love to her, he thought, was like driving blind across narrow mountain passes -- the road hanging halfway between ecstasy and annihilation, traversed by faith more than reason, by madness more than faith."
It was no coincidence that at Nahai's recent reading of "Silence" in San Francisco, a bookshop mistakenly billed Nahai as the Chilean author Isabel Allende, as Nahai recently related in a humorous first-person essay in the Los Angeles Times. Nahai's prose resembles Allende's ("The House of the Spirits," "Eva Luna"), with its element of fable in faraway lands and the near mystical force of love. Both Nahai and Allende have been categorized under magical realism. Set in real periods in history, their characters are almost real, but they exist in a world that doesn't seem to exist for us.
Here, the world Nahai explores is the mysterious Appalachia, which "had its own rules -- the daily workings of a culture so unfamiliar to and so hidden from the rest of the world, it did not make sense anywhere beyond the mountains," Adam realizes when he returns.
By setting "Silence" in Kentucky, Nahai has departed from her Jewish roots, which played a major role in the setting of her last novel, "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith" (Harcourt Brace, 1999). That grand fable was set in Tehran, dealing primarily with Jewish characters succumbing to their fates. Here in Appalachia, only the professor is Jewish; but still, this is a novel about faith: who believes, who is holy. Is Truth more urgent than Desire?
Ultimately, whether or not Blue intended to kill Jenkins is beside the point. There is Truth, but when coupled with Desire, "In the end, [Adam] realized, he would have to decide on Faith."