(Wilkes-Barre, PA: Etruscan Press, 2019)
In this kaleidoscopic pastiche of a novel, Lynn Lurie creates a world full of grief, confusion, pain, and difficult but enduring love.
The unnamed narrator is the mother of a boy who struggles with many mysterious health problems — once, he is called schizophrenic while another time he is diagnosed with an illness that has supposedly been eradicated everywhere except in parts of Africa. While the stress of raising such a child sometimes overwhelms her to the point of despair, she often is loving and accommodating of her son’s unique desires and needs, translating them for the world at large. Yet she has her breaking points — and empties out his hoarded possessions into dumpsters.
Upon inheriting a portrait of herself, she takes scissors and stabs it, ultimately deciding to make it a collage. And that is how this book reads — like a collage of ideas and impressions, taken from a chronological narrative and stabbed apart into what we are left with, pieces of a puzzle strewn like clues between two covers.
The novel toggles between time periods and locations, most notably between her existence in New York City and an earlier life in Peru, coupled with a later journey there with her son. The title refers to a collection of smooth stones her son displays outside each day for passersby, protecting them at night with a tarp. And yet it also seems to evoke the frozen moments that endure from this experience of motherhood and childhood, a veritable museum of stones, if you will.
Much of the book interrogates inheritance of physical but also emotional characteristics. A great-aunt caresses the narrator’s face, finding it almost identical to her own: “You can feel it, she said, as she moved my palm over her cheekbones and then across mine. They are nearly the same.” Her son is a hoarder, while her mother seems to share the same trait. In her mother’s attic, “discarded objects [were] arranged as if someone was living upstairs in that windowless space, putting them to use.”
Yet the book also explores the experience of being incomprehensible to those around you. Her son doesn’t sleep as an infant; when she consults a doctor he says, “Doctors are trained to see horses, not zebras. Does he mean the former are ordinary and the latter are anomalies? I am so sure my son is a zebra I beg him to look again.”
The despair that overwhelms her is life-threatening on more than one occasion: “Other times I am fastening him into his car seat as I prepare to drive over the side of the bridge at the center point where the distance to the water is the greatest” and “what I want is to stop breathing.”
And still the narrator wants everything to be perfect and constantly monitors her surroundings, and those of her son, in order to be safe: “The basement has ten windows and two sliding glass doors, perfect entry points for intruders. Each evening I check even though there is no reason to believe anything has changed. The wind, I reason, could have blown out a window or the gardener could have rammed his lawnmower into the glass.” Another time, when her son has surgery, she is adamant with the doctors about the placement of his bear, “insisting that when he wakes up the bear must be with him under the covers exactly as it was when they took him away.”
As we learn about her son’s childhood, we also visit the fraught childhood the narrator herself experienced. For example, “All night I worried that I was not a good daughter, that next year Father would tell Mother I could not have a birthday cake.” We also inhabit her insecure present, in which she fears her husband will abandon her.
The son is given some of the most insightful moments, masked though they are as unusual fears. “I’m not afraid of drowning, he says, it is that water is unpredictable. I have no way to control where it goes or what it does, and, over time, it dissolves all things,” he continues. Water, in this case, serves as a metaphor for life, which, despite our best efforts to shape it, runs its own course and ultimately takes even the most enduring of us. No matter how hard the mother works to protect her son, in the end both of them are still mortal.
“Stones erode, chip, and cleave, yet remain essentially the same,” we are told. The narrator and her son are both rock cut from the same formation, one that struggles with the elements, and for all its struggling, will eventually be worn away by the water.
By the book’s end, the narrator seems to have gained a sense of peace, contemplating “Perhaps he has solved a piece of the riddle. It is possible the whole thing is coming into focus.“
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Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien writes and edits in New York. Her nonfiction on faith, depression and the imagination from the Bellevue Literary Review was a notable selection in Best American Essays 2011. She has contributed to America: The National Catholic Review, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Narratively, Real Pants, The Rumpus, and Words Without Borders: Dispatches, among other publications. A graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, she has taught writing in the United States and Europe. Find more from her at her website or @CMMOB on Twitter.
You can purchase Museum of Stones here.