Saturday, September 15, 2012

Spark by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

Personal perspective will almost always warp the facts. It's human nature to color our retelling, whether we are conscious of it or not. We emphasize certain details and forget others. In more extreme cases, these stories take on a life of their own. They consume. Where we are when something happens will affect our interpretation and at times, how do we know what's real?

Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's Spark is a somewhat disorienting little book. What starts out as a fairly straightforward story — a woman takes in her pyromaniac brother after he is released from prison — turns into a darker, mysterious world.

Andrea agrees to let her older brother, Delphie, live with her and her husband, Jack, since her mother claims to be too incapable. Andrea and Delphie's father left long ago. One night when Andrea was eight years old, Delphie was arrested. He'd set fire to a house, and the family of four inside perished along with it. The Greenes. Andrea is haunted by the Greene family.

But he would not have singled out the Greene family intentionally; they didn't even factor in. The entire tragedy was a terrible mistake. The judge had agreed, taking Delphie's age into consideration, calling the crime a "prank gone horribly wrong."

Delphie wasn't thinking. I knew he acted on impulse, desire. He acted for the fire alone.

Two years ago, when I admitted to Jack that I felt responsible, I thought he would leave me. My sadness and guilt had to be too much for one man to bear.

He doesn't leave her, but her guilt never dissipates. When she was very young, it was her bone marrow that saved her brother from a rare form of anemia. Without her "magic bones," she wonders if the Greenes would still be alive.

Andrea worries herself crazy — and I mean that perhaps in a literal sense. Her brother dutifully attends therapy sessions, job training, and parole officer meetings, but Andrea keeps waiting for him to "break" in some way. When a series of warehouse fires start occurring throughout the city, the concern for her brother's mental state ramps up. She starts taking it out on her husband, annoyed that he isn't as concerned as she is, and even more so that he thinks she's overreacting. At family therapy sessions, she's nervous and resistant to the therapist's advice.

At the end of the hour, Dr. Gordon asks me to wait. His eyes at close range are disconcerting, glassy-yet-focused, like a toad's.

"I think you could benefit from individual sessions," he says.

"I'm just here to help Delphie."

"You could use help too."

And, I think, you could use the money.

He takes a step forward, and I thrust my hands behind my back, worried that he will grab them.

"Stress is hard to deal with," he says, "without a support system at home."

"I have Delphie."

"There are issues we can't resolve with him in the room."

She doesn't want to hear from the doctor, or her husband, that she is overly dependent on her brother, and that her sense of responsibility is preventing her from living a regular life. She doesn't want to hear that she is behaving like a martyr — a pessimistic one, at that. Even her job as a dog walker is starting to suffer as she finds herself not feeling fully present, even with her favorite clients. Strange things begin to happen. Late one night, she meets a woman, "Sally," who tends bar at an almost hidden establishment, one she cannot find during daylight hours. "You are the sort of person who follows strangers into the night," Sally says.

The trouble I had with these mysterious occurrences was that I wasn't entirely sure that they were real. Now, maybe the issue is that I was reading the book while tired, before bed, and maybe there were clues that I did not notice. If Mauk intended to makes these experiences surreal, I cannot say for certain if that's how they come across. Like I said, time and place are everything when it comes to our perception. Has Andrea gone fully round the bend and Sally is some sort of Fight Club-style break in personality? If so, what does she represent? And if not, well, what then?

Spark is a short book, and while I enjoyed reading it, I found its ending abrupt. Perhaps Mauk's intention was to have parts of the story unresolved and to let the reader decide what was real, and if that's the case, I also wonder if the problem is mine. Most of the time, I tend to be the sort of reader who takes the plot at face value — sometimes to my detriment — and the lurking aha! doesn't hit me until later. Would Spark benefit from a reread, or is the story not fully formed? I don't yet know.

While Andrea is a complex character, the rest seem like stand-in versions of themselves. The withdrawn brother. The baffled husband. The serious therapist. The over-dramatic friend. The mysterious acquaintance. I wanted a bit more from all of them, especially since I felt like clearly rendered characters would also provide some insight into the reality of the book and Andrea's state of mind. Just how barmy is she, you know?

I'd be curious to hear other readers' impressions. Spark is definitely a novel that merits discussion, and I hope that it gets it.

Full Disclosure: I received this book as an uncorrected proof from Engine Books, so my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished version. Spark will be released on September 25, 2012.


This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.

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