Review

The Truth About Celia

by



While reading Kevin Brockmeier's debut novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT
CELIA, I was struck by this question: how can a book that is so
deeply despairing and so heartrendingly devastating be such a joy
to read? How can it be not just rewarding in its conclusion but
enjoyable and exciting from its first sentence until its
last?

On a cool day in March, seven-year-old Celia Brooks vanishes from
her backyard, leaving no signs as to whether she ran away or was
abducted. It's as if she simply ceased existing. The unexplained
--- and apparently unexplainable --- nature of Celia's
disappearance overwhelms her father and mother, Christopher and
Janet, and begins to tear at their marriage as if, having been
parents, they cannot return to being lovers or even friends.

Brockmeier implies that Celia's family will never know the truth
about her and that they will be haunted for the rest of their
lives. But he balances their consuming pain and confusion with a
playful sense of wonder that underscores the novel's immense
tragedy, making THE TRUTH ABOUT CELIA simultaneously wrenching and
whimsical.

An Arkansas resident who has published a children's book called
CITY OF NAMES and a short-story collection entitled THINGS THAT
FALL FROM THE SKY, Brockmeier is a curious and questioning writer
who seems to draw from many disparate influences. Comprised of
agile, eloquent sentences speckled with clear, evocative imagery,
his writing combines Nicholson Baker's miniaturist eye for daily
routines and household rituals, Italo Calvino's ability to mirror
reality through fairy tales, and Vladimir Nabokov's restless
structural innovation.

It's this last one that will likely strike readers immediately in
THE TRUTH ABOUT CELIA. Like Nabokov's PALE FIRE, it is a book
within a book. Brockmeier presents the novel as a collection of
short stories written by Christopher Brooks, even supplying a list
of Christopher's previous works, a dedication page, and an author's
note. This device works similarly to letters in the best epistolary
novels --- as a self-expression of a character's thoughts and inner
turmoil. Each of Christopher's stories is a heartbreakingly futile
attempt to figure out not only what happened to Celia but also how
he can move on.

In some stories, like the collection opener, "March 15, 1997,"
Brooks tries to reconstruct Celia's last minutes in the world and
speculate on her fate. For him, this story is important not only
because it slavishly imagines her last moments but, more tellingly,
because it tries to save her from impending danger and keep her
perpetually young and wide-eyed --- in reality an impossible feat
for any parent, but more than conceivable in art.

Other stories imagine Celia's life after her disappearance. In "The
Green Children," she and a boy are sucked into a parallel world
that resembles a fairy tale universe. But "Seel-ya," as the
narrator calls her, and the unnamed boy are vividly hued, "their
skin the pale flat green of wilting grass … the veins beneath
their arms were dark and prominent, the sharp green of clover or
spinach leaves." The longer they're away from their homes, the more
their distinctive colors fade. It's an apt metaphor for growing up
and the consequent loss of childish imagination and innocence that
Celia will never experience.

In the novel's most effective stories, however, Celia's absence is
a palpable presence as Christopher examines the aftershocks of her
disappearance and the growing chasm in his marriage to Janet. In
"As the Deck Tilted into the Ocean," Janet haunts the local
Cineplex seeking isolation and escapism in all kinds of movies, but
Michelle Pfeiffer's The Deep End of the Ocean and its
disagreeable depiction of a missing child bring her frustration and
confusion to a boil.

Borrowing an eerie idea from an old episode of The Twilight
Zone
, "The Telephone" picks up where "As the Deck" leaves off,
but it switches to Christopher's point of view as he uncovers
Janet's affair with a local police officer and tries to reconcile
their marriage. That Christopher is writing these stories after the
disappearance of his daughter and the dissolution of his marriage
gives them an intense emotional resonance, and each one represents
a profound change in his life --- a moment of hurt or healing ---
that he has undergone in the wake of Celia's departure.

Ultimately, writing in the words and stories of his main character,
Brockmeier reveals with a flourish the therapeutic power of art and
the kernel of emotion --- whether it's despair, hope, wonder, love
or anger --- that illuminate all fiction. Despite the devastation
it describes, THE TRUTH ABOUT CELIA reads like a joyous celebration
of life.

Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 23, 2011

The Truth About Celia
by

  • Publication Date: July 13, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375727701
  • ISBN-13: 9780375727702