By Chris Cander
Other Press, 2015
378 pages, $17.95
Reviewed by Nidhi Pugalia
“What’s the color of happy?” Alta asked.
“Purple,” John said after a moment.
In vibrant shades Chris Cander’s Whisper Hollow paints people striving, simply but fervently, to find happiness, and the lengths they will go to achieve it. Set in a small coal-mining town in West Virginia, Whisper Hollow takes us on a seamless journey through a multitude of perspectives as we follow Cander’s characters to the end of a fifty-plus year journey.
The story revolves around two incredible women: Myrthen is beautiful and proud. Born from the guilty solitude beget by the death of her sister Ruth, Myrthen follows her own bastardized Catholicism viciously, begging us to ask once more – are people born wicked? Alta, selfless and plain, plays a foil to Myrthen and her ruthlessness. A woman who gave up her childhood and dream of being an artist in service of her family, she turns her eyes towards the future, steadily seeking more than what she has been given. Though their paths rarely cross, the choices Alta and Myrthen make weave their fates together permanently, and the secrets they hide not only test the rigid morals of their conservative town, but also shake the comparative laxity of ours. We follow the grace (or lack thereof) with which they lead their lives until teenage mother Lidia appears as a second chance at life for Alta:
“People learn to live with their own versions of the truth,” Alta said, “You have to ask yourself if what you say is going to help people, or hurt them.”
Lidia’s eyes were pleading, “But shouldn’t we always be honest? Isn’t that the right thing to do?”
Alta interlaced her fingers and met Lidia’s eyes with a sad smile, then lifted one shoulder, just barely, a gesture that was not quite a question, but not quite an answer either.
With her Lidia brings her strangely clairvoyant child, Gabriel. The symbolism screams out to us as Gabriel, much like his namesake, leads the three women to redemption, truth, and closure.
But this description only grazes the complexity of Cander’s characters. What are we capable of doing to have what we believe will make us happy? To keep it? To keep our secrets? And what are we capable of forgiving? Whisper Hollow answers all of these questions and more as it pulls its characters unashamedly into the light, their flaws starkly visible. In its surprisingly gentle narrative and the frankness with which it shares even the vilest of secrets, Cander’s novel states clearly that this, this, is what we humans are: fallible creatures with unimaginable depths of love and cruelty.
If a reader is looking for mystery, Whisper Hollow is exactly the novel he or she should pick up. The historical setting and immigrant town of suppressed, rule-bound people create an eery atmosphere that keeps the reader intrigued. But what I found fascinating and refreshing was the level of strength and power given to women in a conservative, religious setting that caters to patriarchy. Right alongside Cander’s romantic plot of secrecy and betrayal is a story of women struggling to create their own unique identity, to fulfill themselves, in a world that does not cater to their wants. And so, even though they must break bonds of family, love, and trust to live the lives they want, my loyalty and sympathies lie in their triumphs. I root for the lying daughter, the adulterous woman, because their search for identity is an immensely relatable quest. If uninterested or alienated by an in-depth look at the lives of wives and mothers, some readers might turn away. Those readers would be making a mistake because no matter what part of the story compels you – whether unsolved murders or womanhood – Whisper Hollow demands us to question our own beliefs in right and wrong and challenges us to create a new structure of morality.
This is a novel that tugs at our hearts and lingers, bringing to us, like Alta’s paintings, an “inexplicable comfort.” It is brimming with sheer, unapologetic snapshots of what it means to be alive, and readers will revel in the sublimity of its narrative. Above all else, in Whisper Hollow we find forgiveness – not only for the characters’ sins, but also our own.