Monday, January 19, 2009

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

"Before and with God we live without God." -Protestant theologian Bonhoeffer

Warning: This is kind of sloppy and disjointed. It is 3 a.m. I'll fix it later.

While The Mermaid Chair is a novel about a restless woman in her forties struggling with restlessness due to her creativity and love for her husband having atrophied, Jessie's feelings of loss of self really resonated with me and made it hard for me to put the novel down. I wanted to watch her climb out her dormant state towards some kind of awakening. I wanted her to take me along for the ride.

Jessie ends up escaping her home in Atlanta and her husband Hugh when she is called to Egret Island to watch after her mother, who has just cut her finger off with a meat cleaver and won't tell anyone why. Since Jessie's father's death years upon years prior, her mother Nelle has always been a bit off--slaving endlessly away in the kitchen at the Benedictine monastery beside her home to avoid facing her own realities. The monastery is home to the Mermaid Chair, a relic that seems to cause Nelle endless suffering regardless of her fixation with the story that accompanies it. The myth around the chair is that a wild mermaid named Asenora who had tried to draw the monks away from their monastery was converted and decided to lead a Godly life inside the monastery. She shed her fish tail and the monks kept it hidden away under the Mermaid chair, but when she was tired of living the life of a saint she would steal her tail away to go back into the ocean until ready to face her other life again. Nelle's personal saint is Saint Senora, and when Jessie finds her on the island , Nelle is burying her severed finger under a statue of the saint.

While Jessie tries to coax her mother back towards sanity in the months that follow her own life starts to spin out of control. Next door at the monastery, a former lawyer turned monk dubbed Brother Thomas for his doubt struggles with the reasons he came to the monastery four years ago after his wife died and is questioning whether or not he should take his final vows and choose to remain there indefinitely. He knows he doesn't belong with the other monks but isn't sure he can "be spit back into that other life. Phil, Oprah, Sally. Madonna's fishnet hose. Revenge of the Nerds movies. Out there where normal people, even bank tellers, used the words 'totally aswesome' to describe the most banal things." Since Jessie and Brother Thomas are both waiting for something to bring about cataclysmic change that will carry them towards life changing revelations, it only follows that they meet one another. Jessie finds a kind of sexual awakening and artistic rebirth while her psychiatrist husband analyzes their failing marriage back in Atlanta and Brother Thomas experiences spiritual anguish. As Thomas puts it, what happens both saves and damns them all.

Just as Nelle seems to be getting better, she cuts off another finger with a meat cleaver. Eventually, we find out that this is an act of "white martyrdom"--in other words following the footsteps of a saint. In this case, Nelle was copying the actions of a fictional St. Eudora who had taken the verse about severing the hand that sins instead of letting your whole body be cast into Hell a little too far. The story escalates and gets a lot messier before anything is resolved, but assuming that you might be interested I won't ruin the ending for you.

The reason that I enjoyed the book so much was maybe not so much the actual plot as it was the questions that were brought up, most of them coming from the floundering Brother Thomas who had committed himself not to God but the search for God, "the one whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere." Another interesting character in the book was the quirky and slightly dissident Brother Dominic, who often referred to himself as a heretic despite his calling. The novel is littered with nods to various theologians both Protestant and Catholic and myths and stories of saints. I kept my notebook beside me while I read so I could scribble down different things to look up after I was finished reading. The abbey definitely created a kind of setting for both the characters and myself that led to a lot of thinking about those Big Questions beyond the ones that plagued Jessie about infidelity and marriage. While all of the characters were deeply flawed their earnest search for answers and the ways that they stumbled upon their own truths were what made them forgivable. Its strange how fiction often offers a more inviting way to work through your own spiritual frustrations than reading any kind of apologetic writing can. It's easier to feel like another average person bogged down with doubts in the the face of a fictional character than it is to feel like an inept heretic in the face of people who have already gone through hell and made it out with clarity to show for it that you can't yet begin to conceive. Or maybe that's just me. I've also always been kind of fascinated how certain Druid myths have been woven into different Catholic and Christian traditions, which is something Kidd also touches on, but I guess that's territory that I should stay away from.

Also, the novel really made me want to drop everything and plan a trip to one of the South Carolina islands that Egret Island was based off of, with its depictions of the rookery and the marsh and the remnants of the Gullah culture. Kidd really has a knack for drawing you into the world her characters inhabit and despite the tragedies that happened on her island, she still managed to make it a magical place.