on September 12, 2010
I loved Irene Ziegler's Ashes to Water for many reasons. It's a tightly crafted page-turner with a murder mystery at its center, as well as an intricate and rich small-town drama, with a large cast of characters whose relationships walk that uncomfortable line between familiar and inbred. The writing is smart, accessible, richly detailed, and occasionally darkly witty. It is cinematic, with vivid characters and dialogue that make me wish I knew someone in the movie biz I could pitch this to. But one of the most satisfying parts of the read for me was that I finally got to spend time again with Annie Bartlett.
In 1999, Ziegler published Rules of the Lake, and it quickly became one of my favorite short story collections. It was there that I first met Annie Bartlett, her sister Leigh, and their parents, Ed and Helen. For the past 10 years, I have missed the Bartletts terribly--especially Annie and Leigh, two characters who, while individually engaging, also give us a pitch-perfect sisterly relationship, one filled with both tension and love. (In Rules, we meet Annie and Leigh as children in the early 60s of Central Florida; Ashes to Water joins them in 1981 when they meet there to deal with and explore the circumstances surrounding their father's murder.) The adult versions of Annie and Leigh make perfect sense given what we've been shown of their childhoods--but they also surprise us.
It was so, so gratifying to not only see some minor characters from Rules move center stage, but also to hear echoes of the short stories, expertly woven into Ashes, appearing as characters' memories providing insights into their motivations, and as background to important plot points. While the whodunit aspect of Ashes is totally entertaining and engrossing, I think to cast this only as a murder mystery sells the book--and Ziegler's talent and nascent oeuvre--short. Sure, we want to know who killed Ed Bartlett, but Ashes is also the story of Annie and her drowned mother, a relationship explored movingly in Rules through the metaphors of mermaids and breathing underwater--a theme that bubbles to the surface in Ashes. Widow Lake, which in Rules is a place of imagined childhood mystery, becomes the site of true mystery in Ashes. Annie's childhood friend, Petey Duncan, who appears as a stuttering and skittish neighbor in the short story The Raft, is now the quite grown-up lawyer in Ashes charged with defending the woman accused of killing Ed Bartlett. Even one of my favorite minor characters from Rules, the prissy and annoying Pamela Hooks, makes a cameo appearance in Ashes, as a neighbor who comes to welcome Annie back to her hometown of DeLeon, though viewed through Annie's now adult and more sympathetic eyes. (If you remember Pamela from Rules, you'll appreciate that she grew up to be a track-suit wearing pusher of megavitaman products.)
And perhaps most powerfully, Ashes continues the story of the metamorphosis of Central Florida, from its pre-Disney days of innocent and magical tourist attractions like alligator farms and Cyprus Gardens, through the commercialization of the Seminole Indian culture, to the over-development and relentless paving over of Old Florida. Rules of the Lake opened my eyes to a Florida that is increasingly more difficult to find amid the Epcots, WalMarts, HolyLand Experiences, Hooters, and Bahama Breezes. Reading these works, we feel not only Annie's love for her hometown and Widow Lake, but her sadness as she chronicles the changing landscape around her. It's a perfect metaphor for what's happening to Annie herself over the course of the books. In Rules the changes are melancholy and wistful; in Ashes they are violent, and the impending death of Old Florida is reflected in the disintegration of relationships, in unseemly competition for land, and in literal deaths (this is, still, a murder mystery).
Both Ziegler's short stories and her novel display her considerable talent for various narrative styles. She writes incredibly evocative lyrical passages (especially about the land, and Annie's relationship with water), insightful interior monologues, and cracker-jack dialogue that--as I've mentioned--is ripe for adaptation to script form. I thought of True Blood (without the vampires), The X-Files (without the aliens), Blue Velvet (without the little people) and Blood Simple (without Frances McDormand, though actually, she'd make a fabulous Della Shiflett, Ed Bartlett's accused girlfriend).
I would strongly suggest picking up both Rules and Ashes. Whether you read them chronologically or not, the two offer a rich interweaving of lives and stories. I hope Ziegler continues to explore the world of Annie Bartlett, but I hope we don't have to wait another ten years.