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Breathing Out the Ghost

By: Kirk Curnutt
Reviewed by: Julia Oliver
River City Publishing, 2008
$24.95, Hardcover

This latest book by Alabama writer and college professor Kirk Curnutt is a brilliant example of how a novel can be an artistic medium which connects the reader to the creative process that went into it. The mystically evocative title comes from the epic poem The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. Although most chapters (all of which have titles) are in third person limited perspective, some are in first person. At times, the narrative takes on a baroquely omniscient quality which seems fitting, as a universal lamentation runs through this prose like a river of grief: How do parents of missing and/or murdered children cope with the ongoing pain of that devastating loss? The dirgeful theme is alluded to in poignant description, such as “The night was just one long strobe of darkness, unfurling.”

It’s been said that the best writers of literary fiction take risks. One of Curnutt’s here is that he has developed the psyches of several principal characters without designating a dominant protagonist. And bravo—it works. A core member of the main ensemble, Colin St. Claire, is obsessed with finding his young son and the man he believes took the boy. He has an impassioned ally in Robert Heim, who still tries to be a private detective although his license has been revoked. St. Claire has a drug problem; both men have marital and psychological issues. They connect with a rural housewife, Beverly “Sis” Pruitt, whose seventeen-year-old daughter was murdered several years before. In the interim since, this woman and her taciturn husband have had two more children. To Sis, the rare fact of her having given birth twice in her late forties is the equivalent of having had her own grandchildren.

As the Pruitts participate in a community rally of volunteers to search for a newly missing child, “Sis asks herself what being the parent of a murdered child had taught her. The answer was nothing—nothing except the inexhaustibility of her own anger, anger at never not being reminded of what she’d lived through, and most of all anger at the presumption that she should be over it, that she should have at some point overcome, have triumphed and proved, if not for her sake then for the sake of those around her, that life goes on. That was never the hard part, Sis thought. Life went on anyway, whether you wanted it to or not. The hard part was being left behind to breathe out the ghost of the one who’d gone on.”

Montgomery writer Julia Oliver is the author of four books of fiction.

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