Skylight Confessions, by Alice Hoffman

A classic tale of Hoffman in which 'everything too horrific to imagine' happens
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Alice Hoffman occupies a distinctive niche in popular American fiction. Her folksy stories of modern dysfunction may be set in the strip malls of Hartford and New Haven, but behind the scenes, an ancient magic is at work - one that harks back to the supernatural tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the brothers Grimm.

Hoffman's previous novel, The Ice Queen, written while she was recovering from breast cancer, was a quietist homily on dying well. In Skylight Confessions, she returns with a more characteristic work: a saga spanning three generations of a New England family blighted by ill-starred romance and psychic disturbance.

John Moody, an introspective architect, lives in a house designed by his father - a glass and steel "cage" that overheats in summer and acts as a magnet for roosting blackbirds. His young wife Arlyn, free-spirited daughter of a local seafarer, feels as trapped in the house as she does in the marriage. While Moody retreats into work, Arlyn concentrates on raising their precocious son Sam, and, with practical good sense, starts an affair with the window cleaner.

Part of the lure of a Hoffman novel is the promise that "everything too horrific to imagine" will actually happen. Here, tragedy strikes when Arlyn dies shortly after giving birth to her second child, a blond daughter named Blanca. While Moody becomes convinced that he is being haunted by a ghost in the boxwood hedge, the teenaged Sam takes to perching on the roof of the house, tempted to re-enact his dead mother's stories of "a secret race of people in Connecticut who waited for the most desperate moment - the ship sinking, the building burning to ash - before they revealed their ability to fly".

The long-term consequences of grief and regret lie at the heart of the novel, but emotional enlightenment isn't to be found in character or plot. Instead, Hoffman takes a leaf out of genre writing, transmuting her characters' unspoken fears into apparitions and hyper-real happenings. Familiar mythic tropes - birds, fruit, lightning bolts - recur, bathing the backwoods in a transcendental glow.

As ever, Hoffman's dreamy storytelling is a mixed blessing. Aphorisms such as "Wrong turns are easily made" appear in the narrative like text on a scatter cushion. Puritans will balk at this quick-fix spirituality, but fans won't be disappointed in a novel that sees the author, 30 years on from her debut, back to her old tricks.

Comments