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The Book of Mercy Hardcover – June 26, 1996
100 (Fiction) Books to Read in a Lifetime
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Narrated in alternate chapters by Edmund Mueller and his daughter, Anne, The Book of Mercy weaves a small web of enchanting tales. There's the story of Edmund's childhood, his marriage to a woman named Fanny who left unexpectedly after their second child, and Edmund's futile retreat into the world of magical arts. Then there's Anne, who leaves to study psychiatry, and her brother, a missionary in the Third World. They are bound together by Kathleen Cambor's elegant hand and graceful eye, and by the novel's arching themes of forgiveness and renewal.
From Publishers Weekly
The intriguing subject of a modern man's fascination with alchemy and Cambor's haiku-sharp prose distinguish her impressive first novel. This is a book about storytelling and how we use it: "Forget truth, what matters is the way it felt, the tale you tell about it," one of the characters says. The narrative alternates between the third-person perspective of institutionalized Edmund Mueller, 83, as he looks back on a life defined by loss, and the first-person viewpoint of Edmund's 42-year-old daughter, Anne, a psychiatrist and single mother. Edmund's tale revolves around his melodramatic, irresponsible and increasingly mentally ill wife, who deserted him while Anne and her brother were small children. Shortly thereafter, Edmund, a Pittsburgh fireman, displaced his fascination with the transformative powers of fire to the study of alchemy. Cambor offers a serious treatment of the medieval art as Edmund learns of alchemy's laws and of its claim of the transmutability of any object or element (including of the dead into the living). Meanwhile, Anne relates her own life story: "Alchemy, God, psychiatry. Extreme attempts to fill the void," she muses. Yet loss keeps intruding: her brother Paul runs away to enter a seminary; her lover decamps, though she is pregnant. Anne's discovery, near the end, of the secret behind her father's obsession with alchemy adds a deeper note of poignancy. Cambor is a sensitive and imaginative writer. Readers will be seduced by her story of love, loss and redemption, and by the power of her prose.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top Customer Reviews
In "The Book of Mercy," Kathleen Cambor explore the ways these characters seek to fill the holes in their lives left by Fanny's absence. "Edmund Mueller is an alchemist," Anne tells us on page 10. "I am a psychiatrist. There was also Fanny his wife, and Paul my brother. An old house in a grimy city. Now there are just the two of us, and Max, my son, and what Edmund draws in the dirt between us." Chapters alternate between Edmund's perspective (written in the third person) and Anne's (written in the first). After Fanny leaves, Edmund throws himself more fervently than ever into his work. Paul joins the priesthood and finds a measure of peace as a missionary, while Anne finds herself through the youthful phases of college life and the rigors of medical school. When the aging Edmund, shortly after Anne moves out, is asked to retire from active firefighting duty, the perfect storm, brewing quietly for decades, begins to churn with increasing violence. Edmund finds his consolation in mysticism, in the archaic half-art, half-science of alchemy. His goal is to create the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher's Stone, that mysterious substance with the power to turn base metals to gold, to restore life and youth.
Although you can infer from reading the prologue that Edmund's desperate experiments won't end well, by the time you get to the last page of this novel, Kathleen Cambor will have you believing in alchemy. Dysfunctional families are a dime a dozen in contemporary fiction, but Cambor's achievement in "The Book of Mercy" shines out from among lesser novels like a gold nugget in a pile of coal. Her prose is elegantly written, fraught with a resonant poetry, yet smooth as butter to read. Cambor has an eye for the small, telling detail that illuminates a character, a relationship, an entire phase of a person's life. A novel just over two hundred fifty pages seems hardly adequate to contain the fullness of two human souls, eighty years' worth of Edmund and forty years' worth of Anne, and yet they will become as real to you in the end as almost any flesh-and-blood human you know. I could speak of the resonant motifs in this novel, the layered symbolism, but to do so seems almost an offense to a work of such perfect unity, a desecration of something essential and alive.
I read this book for the first time nearly ten years ago, and for much of the time since then it's been packed away in my storage unit. Reading it again this week, I felt as if I were suddenly calling to mind a forgotten dream. There are scenes in this novel, ideas, turns of phrase, that haven't seeped up into my consciousness in years, but which have nevertheless remained with me. This is a book that deserves to be read, treasured, shared, remembered, and read again.
P.S. Just in case you happen to read this, Ms. Cambor, I understand you've written a number of short stories. Any chance we'll see them collected in book form someday? Please?
What they have lost seems to be love and direction. They feel it at first as an empty ache within themselves, and their paths to understanding it are varied. Their pain -- as a family and as individuals growing into their lives apart -- is conveyed very skillfully by Cambor's writing abilities. Her characters are alive -- they each have the usual complement of good and bad attributes. As their joys and sorrows are placed before us, we can feel them as well -- and we care about them, for they could easily be any one of us.
As one of the main characters, Anne, works diligently toward finding her place in life -- becoming, eventually, a psychiatrist -- she discovers at one point how important it is to listen to her patients. It would seem to be an obvious point, but it is one that so many people today take for granted or ignore. The key to any successful relationship -- familial, romantic, professional -- is communication. It opens the door to understanding, to respect, to caring, to humanity itself. Each of the family members -- and some of the other characters as well -- comes to this revelation in their own way and in their own time. Some of them hit upon it in time to change their lives for the better, some do not. Some wounds that heal also leave scars.
There are many emotions at play in this novel -- but Cambor never allows it to be carried by emotions alone. She utilizes a twin narrator technique to good advantage and effect. Portions of the story are told from the point of view of the father, Edmund Mueller, a retired firefighter struggling to find meaning in his life, battling the nagging question in his later years of what he could have done to hold his family together. Other parts are told by his daughter Anne -- the love for her family that she tries to suppress, then reclaim; her own search for meaning and fulfillment in her life. Her brother Paul, a missionary serving in far-flung third-world cultures, has his own internal battles to fight.
Cambor handles all of these characters and points of view with respect and ease -- the novel is intelligently constructed and written, enlightening as well as entertaining. This is one of the best books I've read this year.
Part of the reason that so many events with the potential to elicit great empathy from the reader fail to do so is that the book feels like so much backstory, so much summary. We rarely get to be fully present in the past moment with the characters, and because of this, the characters feel very distant and stiff.
But ultimately, this book frustrated me because of the awkward, contorted prose. Look--I'm fine with fragments and run on sentences, but when there is no rhyme or reason as to why so many are being used, they lose their impact and importance. The sentence structures in this book are beyond affected, and they really take away from what could have been an interesting story. I quit reading 2/3 of the way in, I will admit. However, if I feel nothing by then, there is a problem.