Having read a beautifully written review by one of my blogger friends, I had been keeping a look out at my local libraries to see when a copy would be available. I was in joy when I finally borrowed Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, from a library outlet that I had not visited before, saved a buck or so of reservation fee while I was at it.
The plot is tantalizing. It was the wedding night of Carmen the bride who was pregnant with Matt’s child. Carmen’s sister Jean was a musician, who was blindly in love with Tom the married man – also a musician. Nick was Carmen’s brother. A smart graduate with one bad habit – drug usage. Nick has a girlfriend called Olivia who worked in a mail room and like Nick, Olivia too was into drug. Alice – sister of Carmen, Jean, and Nick – was a gifted painter, as well as a lesbian. She fell in love with Matt’s sister Maude who studied nursing while doing part-time job as a model.
The night was getting late so Matt and Carmen sent the last of their guests to the road. Jean and Tom, Alice and Maude got into one car with Nick in the front and Olivia at the driver’s seat. Both Nick and Olivia were high in drug. The car had no light, saved for the fog light. In such wee hours, who would have thought a little girl would cross the road? It was almost an instant death. The girl had no chance to survive. Carry the One documents those who have to live through this painful memory for the next decade and more, how their lives were impacted by this incident.
Each blames himself or herself on what could have been, should have been. Carmen should have asked the guests to stay, because it was getting real late. Alice should have volunteered to drive, but she was so into Maude and wanted to get into the backseat with Maude. Maude should have paid more attention to her nursery course. At least she might have a better chance to save the little girl. Olivia was at the driver seat, clearly the guilty one. But it was Nick who saw the little girl, thinking that she was magical, surreal. Nick could move the wheel and the little girl would not have died.
As what I have expected, Carry the One is about forgiveness and atonement. Each character finds his or her own way to atone to the mistake. Some are constructive. Others are more destructive. Through jail time, divorce, heartbreak, career breakthroughs, facing hope and despair, death and more death, Carol Anshaw draws me into her haunted story of what makes flaw characters so attractive to read: realism. These are real life dramas come alive. People with real emotions, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. It is one successful story that makes you fall in love with all the main characters, despite how flawed they are.
While reading this book, I could not help but to hope that Carry the One would tackle the question of: Why do bad things happen to innocent people? Indeed, the plot does seem to head to that direction when Nick was trying to solve where this ‘equation’ led. Through the routines that the characters lived and breath, I too was looking for the answer. Unsatisfied as it may sound, God works in a mysterious way. Whether or not there is an answer, the characters bounded by this accident would have to carry the little girl with them. In a way, the deceased still lived through them decades down the road.
“Here’s what I hate. I hate that it doesn’t matter if we see each other. There’s still this connection, between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one.”
“I think we altered what was supposed to happen. And we can’t go back and make it happen right. So we’re stuck in some kind of endless loop, trying to improve the past. Which, as you might notice, is resistant to revision.”
Engaging plot aside, Carol Anshaw has an unique way of telling a story. It does not read linear. Timeline may jump ahead. Crucial part of the plot may be casually revealed through one person’s conversation, or one simple sentence. The emotional distance between the characters can be easily felt. It always put a smile to my face when I read how two siblings love each other while putting up with one another’s nuisances. When it comes to romance, the wordings are intense. Below is one of my favorite parts that so vividly describes the disappointment and frustration of searching for love.
Whatever element causes romance to flare was simply not present in the air between [Alice and Charlotte]. This was a huge relief to Alice. Romance no longer looked like so much fun, more like a repetitive stress injury – beginning with Maude, but by now including all the failed and pathetic attempts to replicate that constellation of emotion with someone else. She could measure this past effort in all the underwear she had left behind in apartments, all the bottles of pricey wine she had brought to dinner, all the recitations of bad childhoods and adult disappointments she had earnestly listened to. The first list was, of course, all the women she had by now slept with. Taken individually, they seemed, at their various times, to hold the possibility of lasting love. As opposed to now, so far down the line, when they could only be looked at in accumulation, as one then another fool’s errand. An offshoot list to this was the figure for how far she had gone for sex. (Thirteen hours on a flight from Chicago to Tokyo then back to Chicago the next day has held the top spot for quite a while; she might never better this.) Books she had to read to get into somebody or other’s bed. (The Four-Gated City. The Fountainhead. Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs. Women Who Run With the Wolves.) Terrible music she had listened to because it was someone’s idea of a mood enhancer. (Hall & Oates. Holly Near. George Winston. The Carpenters. Celine Dion.) Topics in which she had feigned an interest during the short term. (Juice fasts. Rugby. Celtic dancing. Bikram yoga.) The longest list was the kinds of tea she had drunk in moments structured around the pretense that tea drinking was the reason for being in this or that café (Pergolesi. Kopi. Café Boost) or kitchen, or side by side on this or that futon sofa or daybed, sipping. (Earl Grey. Lapsang Suchoung. Gunpowder. Rooibos. Sleepytime. Morning Thunder. Seren-i-tea. Every possible peppermint and berry. Plain Lipton.) There was a stretch of time when tea became fetishized for her being so linked with sex and romance, so reliable a harbinger of one or the other.
Different readers interpret a story differently. Here may come as a major spoiler. The centerpiece of Carry the One appears to be the little girl who was killed in a road accident. Rightly so that is an obvious theme. To me, a hidden centerpiece could be Nick the drug addict instead. Throughout the story, Nick’s condition was deteriorating. Olivia – his wife – left him the moment Nick returned to his old habit. His sister Jean was never close to him. Carmen – the sister who was organized and strict – in the end gave up on him. Only Alice, his lesbian sister, still made an effort to take care of him when he crashed, but did not seem to do enough to get him off the drug. Like the little girl’s accident decades ago, these character could have done something to avert Nike’s eventual and premature death. Ironically, while Nick has played a major role in causing the little girl’s death at the beginning of the book, it could be the little girl’s mother who played a major role in causing Nick’s death two decades later.
Forgiven, but not forgotten.
Not only did Nick need to carry the little girl in his memory, but also the very physical clothes that the little girl wore that night, handed by her dying mother to him more than twenty years later: I couldn’t part with these. Couldn’t even wash them, so it’s all still there, the blood and dirt. Anyway I want you to have them. I just wanted you to know how much it’s meant to me. That you never forgot.
“You’re high as a kite, aren’t you?” [said Shanna Redman, the little girl’s mother.]
“Sorry.” [said Nick]
“No, it’s all right. I know you’re a junkie. And I know you’ve lied to me, so we could keep talking, so I wouldn’t blame you. But the thing is, I’ve moved beyond blaming anyone. And she’s beyond it too. I got that from her. What happened that night was what was going to happen. It’s done. You’re forgiven. She’s forgiven all of us. She’s let us go.”