- Comedy in the Ashes
In case fans of John Barth have been wondering what that master ironist might have done with 9/11 and its aftermath, hold onto your hats. Here comes Elizabeth Searle to give us a pretty good idea of at least what some possibilities are. Girl Held in Home is set in the frenetic days after the fall of the towers and told in alternating chapters from the perspective of Maura Simon, a 40ish suburban Massachusetts mom, and Joezy, her very pubescent fifteen-year-old son. The action commences not long after 9/11, on Halloween, when two Saudi brothers, gotten up to look like a terrorist dragging a dead Marine, stage their own shock and awe trick-or-treat assault.
The author is not a newbie just arrived on the literary scene. Searle has been publishing since the early 1980s and is the author of three well regarded previous works of fiction: a story collection, My Body to You (1993), which won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize; her first novel, A Four-Sided Bed (1998); and most recently, Celebrities in Disgrace (2001), a novella and stories. Girl Held in Home is thus her fourth book and the second novel. In addition, Searle has done theater work that garnered her acclaim, and the novella "Celebrities" was made into a film. She has also taught creative writing at several universities, including Brown, Emerson, Rutgers, and University of Massachusettes.
The new novel, part thriller and part romance, is tense and satirically funny at once. The action kicks off when the trick or treating duo rings the Simons's doorbell. Standing there is the Rakeen Jiluwi, dressed in traditional Arab garb and holding a leash attached to which is his younger brother Rasha, outfitted in a fake-blood spattered Marine uniform meant to simulate a dead American. The reclusive Saudi family is already viewed with suspicion thanks to their standoffish ways, and the brothers are clearly acting out their resentment and disdain. But is there more to it? Rakeen claims the family has diplomatic immunity, putting them beyond reach of even the FBI. This is all shocking and tension-inducing enough; but things don't really get rolling until the appearance of a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese girl who is the Jiluwi family's servant. Or is it prisoner, or possibly even slave? In any event, once Joezy lays eyes on her, he is smitten, and one testosterone-fueled fantasy leads inevitably to another.
When the girl hands Joezy a handwritten note describing her predicament, the impulsive teen sets out to free her, with near-tragic consequences. The plaintive note declares simply:
MY NAME LE TI ONE
I AM VIETNAM OF BIRTH
I AM CALLED ONE
MY FAMILY OF HIGH ESTEEM BUT FALL INTO NEED
I AM OF WORK TO THE PRINCE AND FAMILY
BUT NOT OF PAY
MONEY NOTHING HERE AND I HAVE FALL IN NEED
ALL KINDNESS MUCH I PAY BACK
While Joezy is leaving childhood behind and asserting his independence, Maura, his mother, is in the midst of her own midlife rebellion and changes. Until now, she has been a reasonably content PTA mom and part-time music teacher. But now her husband Dan is away on business, stuck in New York where he is unable to get home thanks to bomb threats that keep the rail lines tied up. Or is that baloney? And even if it isn't, is he using it as convenient cover for an affair? Maura cannot be sure. Meanwhile, for her part, she is having a serious dalliance with a woman admirer and fellow PTAer, Frannie, who has admired her since her college dancer days, when she went by the more exotic name Mara. Maura has been faithful through the years of her marriage, but the relationship is stale, the attraction to women is real, and what with doubts about her husband's affections, along with Frannie's advances, she is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. Once in college she almost went all the way...