the LACE READER by Brunonia Barry

My head is reeling with the noise of everything in this room that isn’t being said. 

Towner Whitney, our unreliable narrator, is often overwhelmed by the thoughts of others. Like many members of her family, she possesses the talent to read patterns in lace, or minds. I am not capable of either talent, but my head is still reeling from The Lace Reader. Brunonia Barry’s novel has bewitched me, and her choice to set the story in Salem, Massachusetts has nothing to do with it.

My curiosity and empathy for Towner surfaced so quickly by the end of my first reading session, I wanted to crawl inside the book and hold her hand for the duration of her journey. Barry’s construction of Towner’s world is so real it might be called Velveteen. Whenever I resumed reading I sensed the characters had been carrying on with their lives without me, and, at the same time, waiting for my return so their existence could resonate more fully.

One tool employed to create a Velveteen world is Barry’s use of specifics.

The church is filled with women, all wearing hats and linen dresses, almost southern-looking, out of place here against the cold stone architecture. My eye is drawn to the corner of the church, and a group of women, each one dressed in a different shade of purple and wearing a red hat. 

By allowing Towner to zero in on specifics unique to this moment, Barry enlivens the reader’s senses and we eagerly fill in the rest of the scene in our minds.

Brunonia enhances the mood of her novel with a clear understanding of the essence and power of setting.

It is here that Rafferty finds me, covered with dirt and murdered vegetable matter, surrounded by the fuchsias where the hummingbirds are feeding. I must have wiped out some mint, too, on my way, because I can smell it on me. The mint will take over the flowerbeds if you let it. I remember Eva telling me that. You have to be careful with mint. You have to confine it to its own space. 

Again, notice the use of specifics to guide the reader into another world. Barry’s word selection and orchestration creates vivid pictures and a sense of movement.

When I was in the bin, after Lyndley killed herself, I signed myself up for shock therapy. It was against Eva’s wishes and certainly against May’s (which was part of the reason I did it), but the doctors recommended it highly.

Rhythms like the above underscore facts, enhance mood and illuminate character relationships. This particular passage also shows the quality of inevitability in Barry’s prose. No information is on the page without a reason. Each word and phrase not only reveals, it is a springboard to what the reader needs to know next.

What about character?

Sometimes, when you look back you can point to a time when your world shifts and heads in another direction. In lace reading this is called the “still point.” Eva says it’s the point around which everything pivots and the real pattern starts to emerge.

This “still point” appears to be the place where Barry’s characters emerge. When the reader encounters each character questions surface, but we feel as if we have a solid sense of who they are. Then bam, a chapter or two later information comes to light that tilts our perspective, and a new “still point” roots. At least, this is what we believe until the next revelation. In this way Barry keeps us on high alert. This unmasking of character builds throughout the novel as if we are reading a thriller.

From Towner’s mother May to Rafferty, the police officer investigating the disappearances of the two women that bring Towner back to Salem, the characters are intricately complex and unpredictable. This unpredictability, I believe, is a result of how tightly Barry interlocks events with character action, which brings me back to the element of inevitability.

The Lace Reader is a novel that demands, at least, two readings. The first to bathe in the Velveteen world of Towner Whitney, and the second to analyze the construction of this finely crafted novel.