Tilly writes of dark places of childhood

June 21, 1994|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Sun Staff Writer

As an actress, Meg Tilly has become known for haunted performances in roles that combine a sense of innocence with a darkly erotic core; "Agnes of God" and "Girl on a Swing" come to mind. Her first novel, "Singing Songs," evokes the same qualities in its depiction of one girl's harrowing childhood.

The narrator, Anna, isn't yet 5 years old when we meet her. Her mother, who is trying to corral a houseful of children by herself, marries Mr. Smith, who brings his own kids into the chaotic fold. Hints of things to come: Faith, Anna's new stepsister, likes to play "torture" in the attic. Now where could she have learned a game like that?

The new "Daddy" first establishes himself as a disgusting creature by enlisting Anna to clean his false teeth. Soon he exhibits more sinister tendencies, however, with his cruel beatings. He and his wife exhibit a distinct dislike of social workers and move the family to get away from their prying eyes.

Anna notes all these things with straightforward honesty and pluckiness, like Kaye Gibbons' title character in another very good novel about a young girl's travails, "Ellen Foster." Anna is always able to find distractions when the adults become too awful: "But the very best thing about this house, is that Daddy brought us a baby deer. He found it when he was driving home. His car hit the mama deer and killed it, and the baby deer wouldn't leave its mama."

She even learns to take the edge off her constant hunger: "I got a piece of dog food, not from the bowl where Betsy had been slobbering dog slobber of course, I got a fresh piece from the middle of the bag, and . . . I . . . popped it in my mouth and ate it! And it was good!"

As upsetting as some of these images are, the novel becomes deeply disturbing when the extent of Daddy's abuse is clear -- sexual abuse, with his wife's collusion. Daddy isn't the only one; in this dangerous and callous world, the children are constantly on the defensive. With few exceptions, the adults are first-class (make that worst-class) sleaze bags.

A part of Anna is skeptical of the adults' motives, but she still has a child's faith in grown-ups, and to watch her slowly wise up is a painful process. She discusses the details of the abuse without fully realizing just how wrong things are, and Ms. Tilly makes her innocence heartbreaking.

As Anna grows older, she gets tougher; she learns to stand up to Daddy at her own peril. She especially wants to protect her sister Susan, who says "over and over again, 'Don't leave me alone with Daddy, . . .' . . . And I said I wouldn't. I promised . . . And I won't. I never will as long as I live."

Eventually she realizes that she "could do anything. Anything in the world I set my mind to." And, as a reader, you believe her. This kid has survived a stealthy, domestic hell.

Ms. Tilly writes her moving story with a fresh, convincing voice. It's not without glimmers of faith and humor, despite its chilling darkness. One has to hope that such nasty people aren't as commonplace in real life as they are in this oppressive book, although its pessimism about the state of our society is certainly reflected in the headlines.

And there's something to be happy about outside of the story: This is a compelling novel, driven by lucid, unaffected prose, and we can look forward to more writing from Meg Tilly.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Singing Songs"

Author: Meg Tilly

Publisher: Dutton

Length, price: 242 pages, $19.95

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