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Book Review

A mystery amid tragedy and pain

By Diane White
June 24, 2010

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Only a writer as self-assured as Carolyn Parkhurst could begin a novel with the line, “There are some stories no one wants to hear.’’ She returns to a familiar subject in her third novel, “The Nobodies Album,’’ an ingenious, intricately structured story about the power of grief. In her wonderful first novel, the eccentric, best-selling “The Dogs of Babel,’’ a grief-stricken linguist attempts to teach his Rhodesian Ridgeback to talk so that the dog, the only witness to his wife’s mysterious death, can explain what happened. In her inventive new novel, a mother comes to realize that the tragedy that shattered her life also freed her to fulfill her ambition to write. To salvage her relationship with what’s left of her family, her estranged son, she tries to rewrite the past.

Octavia Frost, who narrates the story, makes a specialty of those stories no one wants to hear, “narratives of tragedy and pathos so painful, so compelling, that they seem to catch inside you on a tiny hook you didn’t even know you’d hung.’’ She is about to deliver the manuscript of her eighth novel to her New York publisher when she reads in a Times Square news crawl that her rock star son, Milo, has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Bettina Moffett. Octavia and her son haven’t spoken for four years, since Milo picked up one of her novels and read the sentence, “They were exactly the wrong two to die.’’ It was a reference to the accident that occurred when he was 9 years old, a tragedy that took the lives of his younger sister and his father. Milo wrote his mother an angry note telling her never to contact him again.

Milo’s reaction drove Octavia to write her latest book, in which she rewrote the final chapters of all her previous novels, striking out anything that could be interpreted as a reference to the events of her personal life. Excerpts from these endings, before and after, are interspersed throughout the novel, providing clues to Octavia’s state of mind, as well as insights into the process of writing fiction.

Octavia travels to San Francisco, hoping to see her son. At 27, Milo is the lead singer in a band called Pareidolia. It’s a word Octavia taught him when he was 4 years old, asking questions about the man in the moon. It means the tendency to try to find meaning where there is none. Milo, out on bail, takes refuge at the home of rock music icon Roland Nysmith. Crowds of reporters and photographers surround Nysmith’s house. On the Internet, Pareidolia fans speculate wildly, and ironically, about which of the lyrics Milo has written reveal violent tendencies.

Octavia, meanwhile, sets out to do some detective work. This is not a conventional murder mystery. The resolution of the crime is presented almost as an afterthought. However, Octavia’s investigations of the murder allow her to tentatively reestablish a relationship with her son, who is simultaneously devastated by the loss of the woman he loved and baffled by accusations that he murdered her.

Octavia has been self-absorbed and emotionally numb since the deaths of her husband and daughter. She is tormented by her failure to help Milo deal with his anger and his guilt, to recognize that his grief was as profound as her own. She has taught writing students that the key to creating sympathetic characters is compassion. And yet she has been “spectacularly unsympathetic’’ to her own son. Gradually she begins to see that while she may not be able to rewrite the past, she can change the future.

Diane White lives and works at Old Friends, a nonprofit retirement farm for thoroughbred horses in Georgetown, Ky. She can be reached at duxwhite@aol.com.

THE NOBODIES ALBUM

By Carolyn Parkhurst

Doubleday, 313 pp., $25.95