Poignant novel finds love in strange places

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2004

"Above the Thunder," the debut novel by Fairbanksan Renee Manfredi, is an unconventional tale of love, loss and reconciliation. There is nary a boy-meets-girl romance to be found in it, yet it ponders true love with an unsentimental insight few authors can conjure.

It tells the tale of a group of lonely misfits, brought together by destiny, who discover in each other sparks of human warmth. The book begins slowly, but as the characters discover their emotions they draw the reader in. This is a tale that grows on you.

It begins with Anna, who teaches medical technology in Boston. Since the double blow, years earlier, of losing her beloved husband to cancer and her wayward daughter to a passing stranger, she has led a solitary life bent on shedding physical and emotional baggage.

"Anna supposed she'd had more than her fair share of what made for a wonderful life, although she'd never have imagined this -- an instructor at a junior college, estranged from her only child, living in a townhouse that was, as of yesterday when the Goodwill truck came, completely empty except for a desk, her cello and chair, and a bed."

She is not pleased when a colleague snookers her into helping with a support group for AIDS patients and their families.

At this juncture, she finds an unwelcome message on her answering machine: Her daughter, son-in-law and the granddaughter Anna has never met are on their way to visit for some unexplained but apparently urgent reason.

The second thread of the story concerns Jack and Stuart, a long-term homosexual couple whose relationship has reached a crisis. The self-indulgent, bitter Jack cannot curb his wandering lust or his acid wit. His irresponsibility wrecks his home and lands him in the AIDS group, where he meets Anna.

They find each other's blunt candor refreshing and strike up a friendship.

The first part of the book lays out the failings and fears of Anna, Jack and Stuart. They come across as chilly and self-absorbed rather than sympathetic.

But about 100 pages into the book Anna's son-in-law, Marvin, and her granddaughter, Flynn, burst in. The novel's tenor changes. Ten-year-old Flynn is a marvel, nearly incandescent in her eccentricities and affection. Her presence galvanizes the other characters and sets the story on fire from the moment of her entrance.

"When Anna looked up, Flynn was standing in the doorway holding a giant cat. She had on a pair of ancient optometrist's goggles -- the old-style optimeter doctors once used to test vision -- and a carrot stick in each nostril."

Marvin and Flynn move in, and when Jack's life crumbles around him, Anna invites him to join her household as well. They bond into a strange and strained family, and the adults all grow to love Flynn.

But this is not a sweet Polyanna tale. Sure, Flynn is a cute kid. But children shun her, and she talks about reincarnations, hears voices and sees ghosts. Marvin hopes Anna can provide her granddaughter with a more stable life and voices his concerns:

"... Flynn is off the charts. Her imagination is positively frightening. ... He paused. ... She draws things in too deep."

Anna finds that as people, especially Flynn, complicate her life with their stormy passions, she grows happier even as she becomes harried.

But Manfredi does not allow her tale to lapse into a tidy finale. The line between intuition and insanity blurs. Those who love are vulnerable to betrayal. Dark forces are at work, and her characters suffer the consequences.

"Above the Thunder" combines tragedy and triumph in a complex and satisfying way. Its characters are memorable and moving, its plot original and thought-provoking. It probes facets of love: friendship, bereavement, lust and parenthood. The author overcomes a few minor inconsistencies to make the story's unusual characters and events heartbreakingly real.

The book's portrayal of homosexuality may especially strike some readers. The sexual situations depicted all involve gay men and, while never explicit, are certainly suggestive. Manfredi flirts with stereotypes as these characters come across as swishy, calling each other "darling" and dressing up as Marilyn Monroe for a parade. Yet her scenes dealing with AIDS are gut-wrenching and sympathetic.

Manfredi, who teaches creative fiction writing at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has attracted attention with her talent. Her short-story collection, "Where Love Leaves Us," won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and the literary magazine "Granta" named her one of the Best American Novelists Under 40.

"Above the Thunder" shows power and promise, transporting readers into a quirky and deeply moving story.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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