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Lynn Lurie

Lynn Lurie is the author of three novels, Corner of the Dead (2008), winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, Quick Kills (2014), and Museum of Stones (early 2019). An attorney with an MA in international affairs and an MFA in writing, she is a graduate of Barnard College and Columbia University. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and as a translator and administrator on medical trips to South America providing surgery free of charge to children.

Blurbs

Museum of Stones is a magnificent and bracing trek through motherhood. In a series of well-placed stones of urgent prose poetry, Museum of Stones reveals the fates in store for this newborn boy: wrists “no wider than a straw” and sternum sporting a tiny tower of gauze, hospital monitors aglow in their wide range of numbers and, later, “neatly folded sheets of paper crammed with lists of [the boy’s] numerical codes.” The book illumines the mutable states of the mother: the means by which she must carve herself, with “no distortions or duplications,” from what precious daily clay is left. ―Diane Raptosh, National Book Award Semi-Finalist

– Diane Raptosh, National Book Award Semi-Finalist

"Lynn Lurie writes here with precision, power, and clarity about all that is most important―those things that sizzle and shriek, burn, and roar in the tunnels and caverns of the heart. Museum of Stones is a beautiful book and Lurie a marvelous writer."

– Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome and The Evening Road

"The radiance of Lynn Lurie’s vision emanates from the devastating frisson between the fragility of the body and the futility of love to spare us the desolating solitude of grief. In Museum of Stones, the enormity of the speaker’s loss pulses through each piercing iteration of her child’s story. Yet writing itself is hope, attention a kind of prayer, an insistence on life, testimony to the desire to recover the shreds and shards of memory, to make from them a space where all things at once are and ever shall be possible."

– Melanie Rae Thon

"Museum of Stones is a dreamy, haunting, clamorous book by one of the bravest souls anywhere."

– Noy Holland, I Was Trying To Describe What It Feels Like

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Museum of Stones

Red on White: Motherhood in Lynn Lurie’s Museum of Stones

05/20/19

The literature of motherhood, like motherhood itself, is full of different pathways. A reader or mother can venture down any number of routes through the experience, and the choices any person has in this regard are determined by luck as much as will. When I was pregnant the first time, a friend sent me Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions, a popular memoir that frankly acknowledges Lamott’s demons: addiction, grief for her father, the mundane travails of single parenting.

Warm and wry, it was the right thing for me to read at the time; it patterned a kind of gallows humor that buoyed me through the tender hell of newborn care. I passed it around to other new mothers. Later, deeper into motherhood, I read and loved Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs, which travels a darker (and more formally experimental) path, largely shaped by Zucker’s deep disappointment in her own mother. Here was a gravel-voiced account that provided companionship by daring to admit, as Zucker puts it, “how often I feel, when with my children, ‘I don’t want to be here.’”

Lynn Lurie’s new novel, Museum of Stones, locates its own route, one whose primary signpost is ominous tension born of trauma and pathology. From the book’s opening lines, its narrator describes her son, just born, as “a crumpled form” and his face “suctioned beneath transparent wrap, like meat.” Things only go downhill from there. “I do not know how to pray but I can weep,” the narrator says later, and indeed she finds little cause for joy, many reasons for tears. Life’s shared milestones become, for this character, occasions of pain.

In a steely, vivid style, through an unconventional formal project of modular paragraphs containing very little dialogue—each unit partially asunder from the others in narrative time—Lurie builds a picture of a woman’s life as it weaves and doubles back on itself via memory and expectation.

The image of blood on white paper, for example—the result of a minor mishap—links to a much more horrifying event, the accidental death of a childhood classmate when blood “continued to dribble onto his white shoes.” It connects also with the narrator’s experience of recovery from childbirth in the neonatal ward where her premature baby lies in an incubator: “As I shift across [the stool’s] hard surface, my skin, at the place of the sutures, throbs. I imagine the edges pulling apart, a crooked path of blood etched into my underwear.” Even her memory of courtship with her husband—“A bouquet of deep-colored roses, red wine, a bath in an antique tub…” coincides visually with this group of images, and thus emotionally too: Times of pleasure are, in this world, marked by the possibility of disaster.

The death of one’s child is the wraith that haunts every parent, of course: Though we call it “unimaginable,” in secret truth we conjure it frequently. Lurie has drawn a character whose fear and grief around loss operate on overdrive. Who knows how she would have fared with a healthy child; as it is, she and her son both suffer through a relentless series of problems whose explanations repeatedly shift along with their symptoms. The son’s early insomnia, as it develops into a phobia of water and obsessive-compulsive behavior, fuels and perhaps is fueled by the mother’s anxiety and addiction. Nurturance, for her, is neurosis—a kind of helplessness, in which every moment of care for another being piles another ounce of guilt and vulnerability onto an already groaning scale. “The attic-ceiling fan shakes with such force I imagine it breaking free and moving through the hallway, catching up to him as he runs toward his room, shredding his flesh and the fabric of his fire truck pajamas.”

Recurring throughout Museum of Stones are images from extended travel in South America, in which the narrator’s witness to suffering in Peru prefigures her experience of her child: an unruly other, a constellation of sorrows that is much too big for one person to fix or contain. Global inequality manifests here in specific scenes of personal heartbreak, like the mother in a rural village with no way to transport her seriously ill daughter to medical care.

An acquaintance in Peru calls the narrator “the one who is stained,” because of a birthmark on her face—again, red on white—and the moniker is apt. She is constantly attuned to darkness and disaster, her own and others’, and it makes her unwell; she may not be wrong, we tend to think uncharitably, when she laments, “Anyone…can care for him better than I.” This is motherhood as mental illness and mother as inexplicable Cassandra.

Lurie’s sometimes overwhelming narrator, and the events she endures, come to the fore, while Lurie herself stays in the background, composing quietly elegant sentences. (“I weave myself a crown using the ivy that grows between the rocks, unaware it is poison.”) In the background, too, is the narrator’s resilience and strength: though she gives herself very little credit for it, the reader slowly begins to admire this mother’s devotion to simply being present through the manifold discomforts of her particular motherhood, to doing better than her own mother did, and to supporting the strange gifts and intelligences that come along with her son’s struggles.

“How many times have I said my son’s name?” she reflects near the end of the book, as mother and son return to Peru together, and the place becomes an unexpected backdrop for the son’s remarkable adult competencies. “I walk beside him, occasionally falling a few steps behind.”

If motherhood takes every mother to the brink, then perhaps Lurie’s portrait of a woman perpetually on the edge is only an exaggeration of what is normal. Motherhood is not a “role” but a pervasive life condition, like a permanent amendment to one’s basic character. And, miraculously, childrearing tends toward growth and survival more often than not.

Lurie’s character had been attracted, as a young woman, to an antique Peruvian postcard captioned La Tejadora (“The Weaver”), and she has woven a certain pattern of understanding from her life’s disparate events. It may be a crown of poison or something more hopeful. In the same way, partly because of her choice to downplay most traditional techniques of fiction—dialogue and plot—Lurie has subtly constructed a picture of tenacious wholeness, if not health. “Stones erode, chip and cleave, yet remain essentially the same,” she writes.

The dreamlike quality of her narrative is, in the end, perhaps more true to life than a tidy narrative could be, and makes Museum of Stones a shimmering, poetic contribution to the world of mothers’ pathways.

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