"There were those who ate from homely tin dishes all bumpy with dents, and those who took their meals off of bone china plates .... Bayou Cymbaline is probably best described as a municipal jambalaya - a slow-simmered stew with a hot, tangy flavor from the blending of mixed bloods and Caribbean spice." So wrote Rita Leganski in her evocatively textured novel of strangely gifted, mute child in 1950's southern Louisiana.
Bonaventure Arrow was only seven months in the womb when his father William was murdered by an unknown assailant. The death of her beloved husband nearly shattered young, pregnant Dancy, who as a result "was like a sieve; the only things she could hold were the boiled-down husks of cooked-away happiness, leftovers from a life that had drained through the wires."
What gave her the will to live was the son she soon birthed - a highly sensitive child who could not speak, but who communicated - unknown to her - with the guardian spirit of his father. Young Bonaventure heard the objects around him tell stories of where they had been, and was attuned to the minute subtleties of nature: "Within a year, Bonaventure Arrow could hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops."
For Bonaventure, sight and hearing were completely intertwined: "The red crayon sounded like the trombone in the brass band .... it started out loud and then slid around your ears. The black crayon made a sound like a pancake dropped off a spatula."
In THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW, we enter into the life not only of Bonaventure, but also half a dozen very real, colorful, heartwarming characters including:
DANCY ROMAN ARROW, who is devoted to her son and the memory of her husband, and blames herself for his death;
LETICE ARROW, Dancy's well-to-do mother-in-law, also a widow burdened with guilt and a secret shame, who hires a private investigator to uncover the identity of her son's murderer;
WILLIAM ARROW himself, who throughout most of the novel, is a spirit hanging around "Almost Heaven", watching over Darcy and his son, unwilling to let go of the earth plane and move on;
TRINIDAD PREFONTAINE - an uneducated black Creole woman who has "the Knowing", attunement to the unseen, and the calling to be a healing force in the Arrow family's lives.
In contrast, we also meet the Wanderer, the unnamed, unknown murderer who takes refuge in madness. And we delight in the wicked antics of Adelaide Roman, Dancy's nasty, narrow-minded mother whose hypocritical religiosity is both amusing and appalling.
Author Rita Leganski has brilliantly spun an enchanting, richly textured first novel. Although her Bayou world is replete with magic, spirit communication and psychic phenomena, her lush descriptions and three-dimensional characters suspend our disbelief. They are real to us. We enter their inner lives and feel their pain, love, longing, grief - and moments of transcendence.
In rich, lilting prose, Leganski captures the rhythms of the Bayou and Bonaventure's sensory aliveness. Of Bonaventure's early experience of Trinidad, she tells us, "he thought she was just the right colors: the golden brownness of her skin reminded him of maple syrup, and when she laughed, her pink tongue and very white teeth made him think of a cake."
As a reader who is normally bored with family background information interrupting a storyline, I was surprised to find myself captivated by this novel's backstory - told in a natural, folksy manner which skillfully illuminated the present actions of the characters. Likewise, I was easily drawn into the story's magic due to the ease with which Leganski incorporated spiritual and psychic elements.
But since I have synaesthesia myself (visual/verbal, not visual/aural like Bonaventure), I found myself wishing that the author had not stretched Bonaventure's sensory experience so far that he could hear stars being born, or a piece of dust speak of crossing the the Himalayas on the foot of a goose. Leganski didn't need to go to such lengths to convince us of Bonaventure's special gifts. I also wanted to know how he was able hear tiny sounds miles away without being distracted by the noises of thousands of people nearby. Those of us with synaesthesia often suffer from sensory overload, and lack such ability to filter our experience.
The novel, which has an unhurried, leisurely pace, also slows down too much in the middle. The author could have told the same story at least as effectively in 324 pages, rather than 374.
But these are minor criticisms, likely to detract little from one's reading pleasure.
As we read, we wonder: Why does Letice blame herself for William's death? Who is the Wanderer and why did he kill William? How will Bonaventure, William and Trinidad all contribute to the healing of the Arrow family? What has to happen for William's spirit to leave the earth plane and for Dancy to love again?
The rich prose, the character development and our desire to know the answers to these questions are likely to keep us turning the pages and finishing this novel in only a few sittings. THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW, by a talented new fiction writer, is an absolute delight. Do not miss it.