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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: SKYLIGHT CONFESSIONS by Alice Hoffman

Years ago, I read my first Alice Hoffman novel—Turtle Moon (Putnam, 1992). Part thriller, part heartbreak, it was hauntingly, beautifully written. Every character was as real as my own mother, and every emotion expressed got under my skin. Since then, I’ve been a Hoffman fan.

Skylight Confessions may not quite reach TM’s level of perfection, but it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Hoffman belongs to that school called “magical realism.” Personally, I’m not fond of schools and labels, but it’s the sort of thing one mentions in a review. All it means here is that a vague, shimmery otherworld surrounds the harsh realities of the Hoffman world. A hint of a ghost or the footstep of a witch shouldn’t surprise a Hoffman reader, and in fact, in most of her stories, the “magic” doesn’t seem all that foreign to those of us who have seen death up close.

Here she tells the simple yet impossibly complex story of a lonely young woman, her marriage to the wrong man, the children she has, the life she completes. Easy, and yet not, because every simple family boils with confusion and deceit, even if they don’t, like this one, unveil real tragedy. Orphaned Arlyn, who marries too fast, with too much passion, is the heartbeat of the book. Even when she is not physically present, she bleeds through her determined daughter, her troubled son, her neglectful husband, her true love. This is not the happiest of stories, but it is beautifully told. We weep for the sinners as well as the sinned upon, because no one quite knows who he or she is, or how he or she is meant to act, until it is too late. Hoffman is a writer’s writer in the way she constructs characters and weaves them through the quiet desperation of ordinary lives.

If this book lacks some of the fervor of Hoffman’s earlier works, it may be that it is simply a quieter, more studied story. In any case, it will stay with you, as it has with me. No true fan will walk away disappointed.

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