Acts of God by Mary Morris

March 10, 2010 at 3:22 pm (fiction, mixed bag, novels)

In her fourth novel Mary Morris examines the many ways we are shaped by loss.

Tess knows all about the mechanics of disaster. The daughter of a traveling  insurance salesman working the flood plains of the midwest, Tess learned early on that no matter how much you love or cherish something, be it a person, a way of life, or type of work, nothing is safe. Everything can be taken from you. It’s a fact she has spent most of her life trying to ignore. But when she returns home for her high school reunion she is forced to face up to the destructive forces that swept through her childhood, and finally learn to cope with the betrayals that carved her into the woman she is.

Mary Morris is one of those authors who makes it look easy. Her writing is lean and clean. There isn’t an ounce of filler in the book. Every single word is necessary to achieve the effect she is going for.  Each sentence flows seamlessly into the next creating a rhythm that starts out subtle but grows more insistent as the story progresses. Acts of God is a novel in which plot and character are intrinsically linked  and Morris’s slow unveiling of each makes for a layered and engrossing read.

That said, my reaction to Acts of God was lukewarm at best, and I blame the main character. Though Tess tells her story in first person, much like CeeCee in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, she never shares anything with the reader. Sure, she relays the details of her childhood, describes formative events as they occurred, but she doesn’t talk about how they made her feel and doesn’t offer much in the way of insight.

Which isn’t to say Tess never tells us anything about herself. She tells us plenty, albeit indirectly. For example, Tess is a collector. She picks up pieces of daily ephemera – bottle caps, loose change, feathers – and squirrels them away in clearly labeled and organized containers. The reasons behind her urge to hoard become clear as she talks about seeing the wreckage left behind in the wake of a flood while traveling with her father. Tess doesn’t need to come right out and say that she collects things because she is frightened of losing what little she has. It’s implied, and that’s enough.

Tess reveals herself through actions rather than words and that speaks to her most prominent character trait: aloofness. Tess keeps herself emotionally detached from everyone and everything, and you read to find out if she ever lets her defenses down.

When reading fiction, generally I prefer to see important connections implied rather than stated outright. It shows that the author expects me to use my brain, and makes me bring as much attention to reading the book as the author did in writing it. But, as we all know, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Morris reveals Tess’s reasons for  living her life at arms length through the rising and falling action, but by never allowing the reader a glimpse into her heart Morris puts too much distance between Tess and the reader. Sure, the distance may be in character, but it does nothing to emotionally engage the reader. By choosing not to dip into Tess’s head the story often feels like a list of events void of meaning.

Acts of God is a well written and crafted novel that is hindered by a main character incapable of connecting with others. It is possible for an author to use distance to enhance a story as Patrick Suskind proved in Perfume, but Morris just can’t pull it off.

If you really want to see Mary Morris at her best I suggest picking up her fifth novel, Revenge. It boasts the same meticulous writing technique and well paced plotting, with the addition of a knowable and relatable protagonist.

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