Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

     Now I look around at our monocultural faces which are sort of smiling, but not nearly as happily as the poster faces.  Mine least of all.  It's not that I wouldn't like to share.  It's not like I want to feel like this, live forever in this mood of resistance and suspicion and doubt.  But I've been feeling this way too long to remember how not to.  How would they react if I really did share, the way we're supposed to, and said: My mom is in "court-suggested" rehab and my dad has no clue how to deal with it or even talk about it, and I think I might be depressed?  What if I said that?  Page 20

Sam has lost every facet of permanence in her life.  The resulting instability manifest itself as the thinnest veneer of affected calm and composure; it's fragile and seemingly waiting to fall apart under the strain of life itself.  Sam's mother allowed alcohol to take her out of Sam's life and she doesn't understand how this happened.  Her father is handling the strain even worse than she and she feels the two of them--the only family she has left--growing further apart and that distance is threatening to destroy her.  As if to undermine all the little things she has always taken for granted, Sam and her dad are borderline insolvent due to legal expenses, rehab, and the general cost of living.  Finally, of all the things that are falling apart it's Sam's faith that perhaps leaves her reeling the most.

Once Was Lost deals with faith in a very broad general sense.  It's not a religious book and there is no preaching of Christian virtue but the concept of belief  is integral to the narrative.  I feel a bit odd pointing this out as if there is something wrong with super religious Christian faith books (which this isn't), but I also know that such books are a turn off for me and I would hate for anyone to miss out on Once Was Lost out of fear of reading a sermon.     

"Now I don't know.  This is different than doubt.  This is something I've never felt before, a total absence of whatever it is that's made me who I am, on the inside, all my life." 

The color of Sam's voice is both melancholy and very sad.  More than this it is extremely expressive which balances nicely with all she can't manage to say or express with other people. 

Sam's father is the pastor of a church in a very small California town.  Her mother, who is absent from the book but for the briefest glimpses, perhaps embodies all the difficulties and problems that Sam is going through.  Sam is treated different as the pastor's kid, excluded from many activities of her peers, and her life is generally assumed to be perfect.  Sam has real difficulties in talking to anyone about how she feels and this is complicated by fact that her father has never once made mention of his wife's absence in their life: not at church, not home.  As bad as events begin they proceed to get catastrophically worse.

A young girl disappears and her loss throws the community into absolute terror and disarray.  In the midst of the panic Sam makes what is perhaps her first real friend; Nick the missing girl's older brother.  The experts on TV and the local police all insist that when a child goes missing it is usually someone local behind the disappearance; someone in the community.  Nick is the prime suspect even as he professes nothing but love and grief about the loss of his sister.  To Sam's absolute amazement, Nick is able to talk about what it's like being taken to the police station and interrogated, talked about endlessly on the news and internet, how his parents treat him differently and no one looks at him the same way they used to, and he does so in a way that comforts Sam as she juxtaposes his expressions for all she is going through.  Their tragedies overlap and they find a depraved sort of comfort in being miserable together.

"That makes him smile.  I can make Nick Shaw smile, even so soon after him having to look at the building-size face of his missing sister.  It's the happiest I've felt in a long time."

The depiction of the relationship between Sam and her father was beautifully done.  She desperately wants her dad to be active in her life and more than anything to talk to her about all the meaningful things they need to address: her mother's alcoholism and the factors that lead to it and her treatment and eventual reincorporation into their lives, the fact that they are broke and Sam won't be returning to the private school she previously attended, and that neither one of them are doing a good job taking care of themselves let alone as a family.  Her dad is riding the knife's edge in potentially neglecting his daughter, but his church responsibilities particularly in light of girl's disappearance and, organizing vigils, searches, and spending time with the family, overwhelm him.  He has the right words for everyone else and is perfect for the world but has no clue how to address his daughter.  What Sam can't see is her father isn't being actively negligent rather he is a horribly pitiful combination of innately spineless and--considering the extraordinary circumstances--justifiably scared out of his mind at the realities life is presenting him.  By the time he starts being overbearing and overprotective she's actually grateful for the attention.

What Sam can see is the possibility of her father, 'the perfect Pastor Charlie,' getting comfortable with another woman while is wife is away at rehab.  Zarr is absolutely brutal when it comes to ratcheting up of the tension. 

The narrative voice of Once Was Lost heavily reminded me of Lydia from Miriam Gershow's The Local News.  It is only by way of being mired in Sam's first-person, teen-aged, depression that this novel doesn't literally fly by.  It is a small, but super dense book that for me proved impossible to walk away from.  Don't start this one late at night as the temptation to finish may prove stronger than your common sense telling you to go to bed.  So many things happen at the end and considering all that has been going on readers have to expect some very messy resolutions.  Whether or not Sam finds faith in anything is moot, but she does find some measure of peace.  Despite the plot and intimacy there is a 'hands-off!' distance from events.  I think this is the only way readers can get through without falling apart every ten pages and having multiple breakdowns.  That said, while there is an objective lack of overt sentiment (remember we see everything through Sam's detached depression) don't be surprised upon reading this should you fall apart multiple times and have a few breakdowns...

The crux of all Sam's anxiety is her mother.  In light of the girl's disappearance Sam comes to understand all that is expected of her father and even sees a few of the reasons that drove her mother to drink.  She feels if her mother comes home that she'll also regain her father and the collective family that has been missing and then everything else in life will miraculously fall into place.  She also deals with guilt of not wanting her mother back because Sam has seen first hand an alcoholic at it's worst. 

     "I don't miss coming home from school not sure about whether I'd find the functional or nonfunctional version of her.
     I don't miss making up excuses when people from church would call to make sure Mom was okay after skipping a meeting of the building committee or failing to show up for a scheduled lunch.
     I don't miss the way Dad and I always pretended, even with each other and no one else looking, that everything was fine.
     But I miss, her."

It's a community with no secrets, everyone knows everything: about Sam's mother's drinking, about Nick being a suspect--but no one is willing to talk about anything; this yields a profound feeling that the community's neglect, lack of faith in each other, and inability to support one another makes the pain of a few individuals so visceral.  From start to finish this novel was as gorgeous as it was sad.  Nonetheless, considering the book as a whole I can't help but recall a specific Dr Seuss quote: "Don't cry because it's over.  Smile because it happened." 

I know I'm gushing.  And I know I'm not prone to gush, but Once Was Lost is a rare accomplishment and merits my enthusiasm and your reading time. 


Marion said...

Wow, looks like it's well worth the read!

I'm finishing up This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Have you read the collection? What did you think?

Chad Hull said...

It most certainly was worth the read. I'm currently angry that her back catalog of books is all checked out from my branch library.

Concerning Diaz: I've never read a word he's written or spoken outside of that interview I linked to awhile back. That said, "This is How you Lose" is only of only two books that caught my eye from the National Book Award List. (I usually read one from the list every year.) I own it. Just as I own his previous novel. Just haven't gotten around to it yet.

Is it worth the read?