"Here they are," Harriet Doerr's novel Stones for Ibarra begins, "two North Americans, a man and a woman just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico and already lost as they travel cross-country over the central plateau. The driver of the station wagon is Richard Everton, a blue-eyed, black-haired stubborn man who will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines." Richard and his wife Sara have come to Mexico, to the tiny town of Ibarra, to start a new life, reopening the mine that Richard's grandfather once operated. But from the very beginning we know that Richard's death, six years later, looms over their grand experiment. It's tempting to say that we know what they do not, but they do know: a doctor gives Richard six years to live, which he completes almost exactly before dying. Mathematical-minded Richard begs Sara to see things as the are, but she uses a powerful imagination to cling to hope, just as she uses it to fill in the lives of the villagers of Ibarra who can never quite be their friends. "But inside her," Doerr writes memorably, "a woman not much older than herself stood in a dark, windy place."
I was overwhelmed by the stark beauty of Doerr's writing. Maybe it's the climate and the geography, but it reminded me of nothing more than Willa Cather and Death Comes for the Archbishop, though Doerr--already in her seventies when this, her first novel was published!--seems much more equivocal about whether a "good death" is possible. Sometimes Richard's terminal illness produces sharp comedy, as when Sara, in the middle of the night, hires the town's only ramshackle taxi, complete with a caged bird twittering in the backseat, to drive an hour away to fetch a doctor for an emergency. He's the best doctor in the area, the taxi driver assures her. The doctor turns out to be an orthopedic surgeon. But it also produces a elegiac quality that imbues the Evertons' project, which, in another novel, might be the object of stupid-American satricial jabs, with nobility and tragedy.
The impending fact of Richard's death exists in the context of the village, where life is always close to death. A mentally disabled young boy drowns in the runoff pool of Richard's mine, where he has followed his brother, trying to fulfill a secret tryst. Another's alcoholism leads to an rough-housing accident, then a brain lesion, then poverty, then murder. ("Like God," Doerr writes, "the mescal created a man.") Children suffer in fireworks accidents. Compared to these things, what is Richard's death? Something, maybe, that unites him, and Sara, to the villagers, from whom they are otherwise necessarily aloof. Their housekeeper, Lourdes, hides tokens and charms--a red ribbon along a bookshelf, a thorn in a blown glass lamp--which are found and thrown away. The villagers respect the Evertons, whose mine has brought the town some prosperity, but they cannot quite fully understand each other.
Doerr, who lived at such a mine in such a place in Mexico with her own husband, might be trying to make sense the villagers she knew at that point in her life. It's funny, if Doerr sees herself in Sara, how can she "see" the villagers of Ibarra more clearly? Or is perhaps "seeing" the wrong word--maybe seeing, in this case, is not enough to really overcome the barriers of language, culture, understanding. But I'm making the book sound more critical than it really is. The title image, which appears in the book's final pages, is of a series of stones laid at the Sara's door on the anniversary of Richard's death by the people of Ibarra, in imitation of the kind of cairns laid at the seat of an accident. Like much of the book, it's understated but touching, and complex:
Through the gates she watched trees lose their green and the tile pattern of the driveway disappear. As she stood next to the heap of stones a miner passed her on his bicycle, then two others coasted by. She raised her hand and the riders waved back. But her intention had been to stop them.
Stop, she wanted to call out. Stop for a minute. Look through these gates and see the lighted house. An accident has happened here. Remember the place. Bring stones.