The Embers

I just finished The Embers by Hyatt Bass and thought it was outstanding. Really excellent, the kind of book whose characters have burrowed into my brain and don’t show any signs of leaving any time soon. The story was beautiful and tragic and totally believable all at once. And the writing – oh, the writing! Bass’s voice is lovely, soothing and wise, her images are original without being flowery.

Two scenes really stuck with me. One is when the male protagonist watches his wife undress and notes that “her body comprised a map of their life together.” He goes on to talk about the obvious marks, like the c-section scar, and the less prominent ones, like the faint mark from a stingray gash in Greece in their early years together.

The second is when a sick brother climbs onto his stoned sisters’ shoulders in a last-ditch effort to find normalcy through childish rough-housing. When he is moved to express his affection, she cannot cope with the gesture and responds by shutting him out, physically and emotionally. The sister’s hurt and fear are tangible in the scene, and I read it with tears rolling down my face.

The real strength of the book, and the reason I think it will stay with me, is the exquisite, unflinching way it traces the dissolution of a family. Bass comments, in quiet, wise ways, about the way that the choices we make echo through our lives. About the ways that the truths (and untruths) that we live with change us. About how there are certain moments we can never take back, and about the powerful, overwhelming way we wish we could. About the seeping, unavoidable toxicity of silence and of not communicating.

Bass’s characters are compelling in their humanity, both charming and repellant at the same time. The larger-than-life father, whose identity as a genius is both inspiration and albatross, who both defines and haunts the narrative with his decisions. The malleable, confused mother, who struggles to delineate a self in a post-mothering world, whose fierce love and sacrifice for her children goes largely unnoticed. The daughter, life pockmarked by tragedy and bitterness, who tries mightily to find connection and redemption. And the son, a character who becomes a more of a legend, whose shadow falls over the lives of his family.

It’s a great book. A reminder that we all need a blazing hearth, wherever we find it. Go read it.