Three writers depict characters shaped by loss

June 16, 1991|By Diane Scharper

Twenty-nine-year-old Yolanda Garcia leaves New York and returns to the Dominican Republic. Here, Yolanda, the central character in Julia Alvarez's symbolic and haunting book, "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" (Algonquin Books, 290 pages, $16.95), connects with the child she once was. Driving through the countryside, she sees an old woman "in the black square of her doorway." Nearby is a billboard. On it is pictured a young woman whose skin gleams a rich white; her head is thrown back, her mouth open "as if she is calling someone over a great distance."

Looking at these two women, Yolanda sees herself. She is the "mother-tongue" of her ancestors and the writer, a modern American woman. Life, as she sees it, is this effort to connect past with present. Making these connections, Yolanda knows herself to be a woman haunted by "story ghosts." By writing, she attempts both to exorcise these ghosts and to bring them to life. Loss, she observes, lies at the center of art.

That lost things shape our identities (we are what we do not have) is a theme that runs continuously through literature. It is a theme addressed in these three first novels: "How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents," "China Boy" and "Object Lessons."

Focusing on loss, Ms. Alvarez's 15 short stories (which, taken together, work as a novel) show the Garcias leaving family and home in the Dominican Republic. Arriving in the United States, the girls face subsequent losses of friends, lovers and their deepest selves. Telling the stories of their lives one Christmas, Yolanda, and her three sisters -- Carla, Sandi, Sofia -- look back on 30 years and create this book, which is, in effect, their present.

Kai Ting, the protagonist of Gus Lee's "China Boy" (Dutton, 322 pages, $19.95), feels that he is two selves -- each speaking a language foreign to the other. In one tear-streaming night, Mr. Lee explains in his autobiographical, somewhat overwritten, novel, the members of the Ting family lost everything: their home in China, the people of their blood, love itself. They arrived in San Francisco in 1944. A year later, Kai was born.

When the story opens, Kai, the youngest of four children, is revered as the Only Son, especially by his mother. Educated in classical Chinese humanism, his mother asks the scholar, Uncle Shim, to serve as her son's mentor. "Ting," his mother explains, "means human." And "Kai," she continues, means "educate." She wants Kai, therefore, to become a man of reason. When Kai is 6, his mother dies, and his father marries Edna.

Seeking to destroy his Chinese heritage, Edna forces Kai to speak in English, whose pronunciation and whose logic elude him. In addition, Kai must cope with life on the streets, which measure a boy's courage by his fists. Fighting, though, is a metaphor. The struggle, as Kai understands it, is "really an effort to fix identity . . . to give his loss a human face."

Like Kai, Tommy Scanlan has had his life split in two. And Tommy, a character in Anna Quindlen's "Object Lessons" (Random House, 262 pages, $19), also must fix his identity. He begins to do this as he watches his father die. Tommy had always hated his father's way of controlling everyone. But now, he "feels as if his father was flowing into him."

Often, when he leaves the hospital, he still can see his father -- the cord to the intravenous feed, the bright yellow tube running from beneath the covers, and the eyes. His father's eyes, "like blue bullets, aimed straight to the heart." At times, he catches himself speaking in his father's voice. And he feels "as if there had been a great rift in the earth of their existence, separating one piece of ground from the other."

Where, this book asks, is the boundary between parent and child? When we've lost a parent -- or by extension, anyone that we've loved -- can we ever again find ourselves? What stuff makes up these ties that bind us?

Ms. Quindlen, a columnist for the New York Times, takes a penetrating look at the emotional fallout that accompanies the -- death of a family patriarch. Setting her story in the 1960s in a conservative Irish-Catholic neighborhood in New York, Ms. Quindlen focuses on Tommy, his Italian wife, Concetta, and their 13-year-old daughter, Maggie.

For them, John Scanlan's death is a climax in a troublesome series of events. Those events, moreover, erase "the lines that connect people . . . as if they had been written in chalk. . . ." Gradually, the Scanlans learn to draw new lines. But as Maggie puts it, they understand that loved ones, both the dead and the living, stay with us. Listening to their voices speak inside our heads, we hear our own voice.

That voice, each of these books suggests, becomes the purpose of art and lies at its center.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State.

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