Robin Messing, Serpent in the Garden of Dreams (The Permanent Press, 2008)
Messing’s debut novel unfolds in two rotating narratives of one woman’s life, one of her lonesome present and the other of her lucidly recalled childhood. The present: Tildy at the end of a year-long relationship, struggling to replace her fears of abandonment with trust in her ability to exist beyond her relationships with others. The childhood: a thirteen-year-old, newly pubescent Tildy, tracked over the course of a summer. While Tildy does her best to provide self-comfort, her efforts are dwarfed by the morphing chaos that is her family—her mother taking on a married lover and kicking her father out, her father’s silent self-pity in the face of upheaval, and her older brother feigning maturity through emotional barrenness and mounting disinterest in Tildy.
Messing sets her vivid, unfeigned characters in an equally vibrant Brooklyn landscape, with details that could only be conjured by a true Brooklynite. Tildy’s intimately personal associations give her vibrancy and an undeniable quirk. “It was Tuesday, and she recalled the day her father came home with a small raise and said that Tuesdays are days of good fortune for Jews…”
Interpersonal relationships are magnified by the sparse and poignant dialogue. Relationships between past and present are expertly accentuated in the different narrative voices; grown Tildy speaks from the first person, allowing the reader to engage with the agency she so doubts her possession of, whereas Tildy’s childhood is recalled by an omniscient narrator, which invokes her youthful distance from the events unfolding around her.
Messing’s prose rides the line between poetic despair and the witty realms of our private and sometimes obsessive thoughts. Her tension-bound sentences veer away from contrivance and melodrama, leaving us instead with confidently rounded thoughts. This is best seen in the recurring description of Tildy’s panic when faced with separation. Running into her father a week after his initial departure from their family home, Messing explains, “Even a week’s absence can winch a gully of otherness between two people who know each other’s minutest gestures.”
As the late poet and warrior Audre Lorde reminds us, “There are no new ideas, there are only new ways of making them felt.” Messing confirms this notion with the profoundly delicate construction of one woman’s coming to know her own truths beyond the shadows of the larger-than-life relationships she has both clung to and feared. In her willingness to reside in the spaces between black and white, Messing moves us to accept the infinite imperfections and humble magnificence of our struggle to see ourselves as whole.
Hana Malia is a brazen femme poet and sexual dynamo.