rev. of Bitter Lake by Ann Harleman

Issue #72
Spring 1997

Bitter Lake 
A novel by Ann Harleman. Southern Methodist Univ. Press, $22.50 cloth, $12.95 paper. Reviewed by Fred Leebron.

In her first novel,
Bitter Lake, Ann Harleman, the 1993 winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award, deftly evokes the complex world of abandonment in a dysfunctional family. Here is a meditative work about family, motherhood, and an encumbered adolescence, in which characters seek to make the absent present and to rejuvenate their inert and desperate lives.

Gort and Judith are first cousins from the Midwest who married and moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where they parented two girls six years apart while Gort worked at Bethlehem Steel and disappeared at irregular intervals, always to return. Judith explains, “Gort and I had always, as he put it, lived against the grain (of America, he meant) jobs that paid in freedom rather than in cash, a life not held hostage to
things . . . The going away and coming back renewed that was the way Gort was.”

As the novel begins, Gort has been gone two weeks, and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Lil, is pressuring Judith to report him missing. The distinction between Lil and Judith’s perspectives provides the narrative drive for the story. Harleman shifts smoothly between the two voices as mother and daughter struggle to find meaning in Gort’s prolonged absence. When the days mount without explanation or discovery, Judith seeks to build a new life, gaining a job as a carpenter’s assistant and entering into a romantic relationship that is antithetical to the one she had shared with Gort. But her problems with Lil intensify, her daughter becoming more and more a mystery to her: “I thought of how she’d been at three, at six, at nine. No one warns you about the losses. No one tells you you’ll miss them, those earlier children. They disappear but are they still there, sealed one inside the next like those little Russian dolls?”

As always, Judith’s perception is acute, for it is Lil’s awareness of the past that keeps motivating Lil’s own actions into a relationship with
her first cousin, and into a desperate search to find her father, an effort that leads her both forward and backward in time, to a turning moment at Bitter Lake that comprises the family’s central tragedy. “For a moment,” Judith says, when watching over her daughter at a hospital after a midnight accident, “I saw the little girl trapped inside, a child the old woman had swallowed, a child that I, reaching in deep and pulling it out through the slack mouth, might save.”

Bitter Lake there is an obsession with understanding the emptiness caused not only by the departure of Gort, but also by essential questions of self. “Gort had been my cousin before he was my friend; my friend before he was my lover,” Judith declares. “Gort had been my family, always. We didn’t need to talk, the silence of families held us.” Eventually, Judith recognizes an opposite aspect of this silence. “Suddenly I knew what it was Gort longed for. Had always longed for. Not our combined magic, that third we made between us; but the opposite. Order, distance, solitude the other side of silence. A pearl in the brain.”

Fred Leebron’s first novel, Out West,
will be reissued in paperback by Harcourt Brace/Harvest in 1997. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology.