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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel Paperback – February 14, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
The inner life of Emily Dickinson was creatively effulgent, psychologically pained and emotionally ambivalent, as reported by Charyn, who here inhabits the mind of one of America's most famous poets. Charyn parrots the cadent voice of razor-sharp Dickinson, beginning in her years as the tempestuous young lyricist who aims to choose my words like a rapier that can scratch deep into the skin. From the first page, witty Emily harbors conflicted feelings toward her female status: her esteemed father, the town's preeminent lawyer, adores Emily at home for her intellectual companionship, but also dismisses her formal education as a waste of money & a waste of time, and it's easy to see how Emily's poetic instincts are born from the shifting sensations of comfort and resentment brought by a childhood spent serenading Father with my tiny Tambourine. Emily's growth is brightly drawn as she progresses from petulant child to a passionate woman with a ferocious will and finally to that notorious recluse. However, while this vivid impersonation is a stylistic achievement, it's also confining and limits higher revelations. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Charyn carefully adheres to the known facts of Dickinson's life, and he has a thorough knowledge of her poems and letters, the strains of which echo through his clever and elegant prose. Despite these qualities, the critics' reactions were tepid and unenthusiastic. They collectively took issue with his characterization of Emily as fickle, unstable, and promiscuous--hardly the makings of a perceptive and profound writer. The Washington Post denounced Charyn's choice to exclude Dickinson's poems from the narrative as a "damnable omission," and the San Francisco Chronicle derisively labeled the novel a "bodice-ripper." Readers who cherish Dickinson and her astonishing legacy may find the heroine of Secret Life supremely unsettling; those unacquainted with her should perhaps start with a biography like Brenda Wineapple's White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higgins (HHHH Nov/Dec 2008). --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
Charyn captures both Dickinson's language and her complexities. He freely intertwines fact with fiction, which is why I think reading this book as some kind of strict historical fiction/quasi-biography is a huge mistake. This isn't a biography or even a biographical novel. It's more akin to what Shakespeare's great Roman tragedies were: dramatic reworkings of sources that were themselves somewhat embellished (the layering of Shakespeare's Coriolanus to Plutarch's Caius Martius to the "real" Caius Martius, for example). A more contemporary example might be Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, which is largely autobiographical but (as I understand it) interpolates some fictive situations or twists--new layers to a real story. Like The House on Mango Street, Charyn's Secret Life is also told in a loose vignette style.
Out of the raw material of Dickinson's tempestuous life in the Amherst teapot, Charyn casts her as a somewhat reclusive spinster whose bottled-up passions are always at a boil and ready to burst. The story is relatively straightforward, and usually centers on Dickinson's interaction with one or two people at a time. Like Dickinson, Charyn has a mastery of the small, pithy sarcasm: "There was never a show-off like Emily Lavinia Norcross," she says to us in the first-person, "But I'd start a war between our families if I bludgeoned her."
Charyn's Dickinson is also a warm, acutely human observer: "I find Mother in the kitchen, reading a recipe. There is a delight on her face I seldom see. Perhaps the clarity of measuring cups soothes her. She looks up in wonder, her mind still caught in a world of ingredients." My own mother has a deep and abiding love of cooking and recipes--so perhaps that is why this passage struck me powerfully, but a world of meaning is crammed into this brief set of sentences. Charyn, like Dickinson, has the gift of packing mountains of meaning into molehills of sentences.
The ending (mild spoiler: Dickinson dies at the book's end) is an immensely moving fugue, as Dickinson walks almost like a ghost through a maelstrom of faces, voices, and memories that have filled the book from literally its first page. As the final chapters unfold, Charyn's Dickinson speaks with consistently powerful, forceful images (a dancing cow, for example), but it is clear the division between her lively imagination and reality is blurring and collapsing. The result is some of the most moving prose I've read in a work of modern fiction.
Coming off of a reading of Alfred Habegger's magnificent My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, I found this book to be a satisfying, intriguing, and even emotional read for anyone who loves the work of one of the greatest poetic voices in the history of American literature.