rev. of Every Past Thing by Pamela Thompson

Issue #105
Spring 2008

Every Past Thing, a novel by Pamela Thompson (Unbridled Books): I mean no slight to Pamela Thompson’s dazzling first novel, Every Past Thing, when I say that here is a book that can be judged by its cover: A reproduction of Edwin Romanzo Elmer’s exquisite "Mourning Picture." (The original hangs in the Smith College Museum of Art.) In the foreground, Elmer depicts his only daughter, Effie, with her pet sheep, Her Excellency, shortly before her death. In the background sit he and his wife, dressed in mourning, and half the size of their ten-year-old daughter. Just as there is nothing conventional about the painting, which portrays its subjects in proportion to emotional importance rather than physical size, so there is nothing conventional about Thompson’s deeply imagined narrative.

The action of Every Past Thing takes place in New York City, in a single week of November 1899, during which various characters offer us fragments of a story that together form a fractured, and deeply moving, whole. Most particularly we get the point of view of Effie’s mother, Mary, whose life has come to a standstill since her daughter’s death and who is only now, as she and her husband move to New York so that Edwin can study art, awakening to the present. Drawn by her memories of Jimmy Roberts, a young man with whom she has had a brief intimacy and a long correspondence, Mary begins to visit a bar that he has mentioned his letters, a famous meeting place for anarchists and intellectuals.

While Mary sits drinking cider, writing and reordering her papers, she meets a young journalist who in turn introduces her to his sister. Frank and Susanna are immensely appealing characters both to Mary and to the reader but the story of their meetings and conversations forms only one strand of this complex narrative. In addition to Mary’s point of view we also get glimpses of Edmund’s struggles at art school, the relationship between Edmund and his much more successful brother Samuel, Samuel’s relationship with Mary, and the love triangle that brought Mary to marry the brother she didn’t care for rather than the one she did.

The result is a beautiful and mysterious story of grief and love, age and youth, politics and privacy. Nothing is simple and everything is radiant. The radiance comes from Thompson’s clear intelligence, her vivid use of detail and her lyrical, expressive prose. I was struck by her ability to voice her characters’ thoughts in a way that seems both appropriate for the period and timeless. Here is Edwin painting his sister-in-law just after he learns she is pregnant.

Upstairs in Samuel’s sitting-room, Edwin paces before the canvas. A bowl of eggs on a table to the side of her …. He doesn’t actually want a bowl of pristine pale eggs. In fact, he wants to remove the blue-and-white china vase from the sideboard and crack a single egg open in its place. What pleasure to paint its yolk vivid and yellow beside the orange of her. He begins to chuckle. The urge to juxtapose this with that irresistible. Might be trouble, egg yolk on mahogany. Probably make a bad stain.

And here is Samuel’s daughter closing a door: "Maud opens and closes the front door quietly, and the frame accepts the door in a complicit, silent embrace."

Over and over reading Thompson’s prose I paused in admiration and then hurried on, longing to know where she would take me next. And where she took me was an immensely satisfying destination, full of feeling as finally her characters embrace the present and sometimes, happily, each other. —Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey is fiction editor of Ploughshares. Her latest novel is The House on Fortune Street.