Anthony Burgess suggested the great value of the novelist’s contribution when he stated that in writing his Malayan trilogy (1956–1959) he wanted to become ‘the true fictional expert on Malaya’. As Burgess indicates, writers of fiction can reflect and illuminate the nature of life within a specific place and time: the particular social codes, laws, practices and ideals their characters are making decisions within and about. The ability of writers to do this in a way that registers the complexity of human belief, feeling and understanding, better than other forms of artistic or intellectual enquiry, makes works of fiction, especially the novel, in my mind at least, the most satisfying – the greatest – of art forms.
With Sufficient Grace Amy Espeseth has announced her arrival as a novelist and as a fictional expert of small-town fundamentalist Christian life in the town (or towns) Failing, Wisconsin, is based on. At the Trades Hall bar launch of the novel in Melbourne, Espeseth’s editor Aviva Tuffield spoke of her and Amy’s struggle to achieve a language in the book that would be sufficiently true to its Wisconsin origins while also interpretable by her Australian readers and acceptable grammatically. The realised voice and style seem, to my outsider’s ear, consistent and convincing and, in their fidelity to a traditional rural-Wisconsin lexicon, arrestingly and pleasingly poetic.
The story is narrated by Ruth, a girl in early puberty who lives with her mother Marie, father Eric, and elder brother Reuben. Her extended family is also extremely closely knitted together: Erik’s brother Uncle Ingwald, Aunt Gloria (Glory), cousins Naomi and Samuel, Erik and Ingwald’s brother Uncle Peter, and Grandmother Esther. With the exception of Peter, who has left the Church, the family is part of a larger ‘family’ of Failing fundamentalist Christians, and part, though not a very active or even willing part, of the wider community of the area, the community of ‘normals’, as Ruth calls them.
On a surface level, the story is ultimately about these people trying to live a good life and, most particularly, about Ruth and Naomi trying to grow up (Ruth, in the Bible, is Naomi’s ‘good’ and protective daughter-in-law). The attempt is apparently doomed from the outset, as signified by the Toni Morrison-esque choice of town name and by the overarching gothic atmosphere of the novel: foreboding in earlier sections, profoundly grim as revelations unfold. (This is not the Wisconsin of the Fonz and Happy Days.) There are some signifiers of redemption framing the book, such as its dedication (‘For my family. We did the best we could’) and epigraph from Second Corinthians (‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed’), but, as with Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe (2004), one’s expectation at the end is that the pain, suffering and loss portrayed will be continued, in this world at least. The ending is cathartic, though in a way reminiscent of Greek tragedy, or of one of those Old Testament stories that ends in Punishment and poses for Christians attempting to divine a thread of justice within them, a rather difficult task.
The characters of the novel, however, even the malicious Samuel, are portrayed with very human sympathy. This is, from one perspective, a working-class novel, and as such is one of the few of this category to present a father (and in this case, more than one of them) who is not overwhelmingly ‘damaged’ by work, lack of education, abuse and self-abuse. The fathers of Sufficient Grace are genuinely loving and able to show affection, care and patient instruction to their children (mainly in the ways of the Lord and of Nature, with hunting, in highly ritualised forms, being thought of as very much a natural thing).
Fully realised female characters are also somewhat thin on the ground in the working-class novel, and female children’s viewpoints even more rare. Interestingly, in view of the relatively positive portrayal of the book’s fathers, the family is, in at least one powerful sense, a matriarchy: Grandma Esther is at the family’s head, the seat of power. And these two phenomena – the ordered, pious nature of the men and the power of Grandma Esther – are linked by the fundamentalist Christian code through which she has obtained, and on the basis of which she exercises, power. As in any society, culture and power, while not being one and the same, are inseparably connected.
Grandma Esther uses the law of the land to reinforce her authority, reminding her sons from time to time that the family property belongs to her, and no-one else. No doubt her position stems also in part from her seniority, in a very traditional social environment. But overwhelmingly the real bases of her power are moral and religious. She brought the family into the church, she lives by and evaluates others’ behaviour according to a strict moral code, and she has the ‘gift’ of speaking in tongues, meaning that she is perceived, within this fundamentalist community, to be, in a concrete sense, closer to God than others. She has, in however qualified a sense, god-like status.
Traditional feminine characteristics of purity, innocence, selflessness and motherliness, which reinforce the religion’s moral code, are also more ‘naturally’ worn by women in this community of people who, in terms of gender roles, are strongly traditional. The transgressiveness of Samuel, who accepts and is apparently unable to question his (traditionally masculine) ‘bestial’ desires, is probably also a product of this culture, which whatever else it is, is certainly highly repressive.
At a deeper level the novel is an exploration of the role and power of spirituality and spiritual belief. Espeseth is interested in how such beliefs impact on people directly and indirectly, regardless of what they consciously know or accept, and in the permeability and pervasiveness of the spiritual dimension. As Thomas Hardy’s Tess D’Urberville was apparently doomed by an ancient curse on her family, and Isaac in Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe cannot escape the effects of his Panagis forebears’ murder of a Jewish child, the bloody finale to Sufficient Grace is, it seems, integrally linked to the spiritual decisions and choices of this family. Where Hardy wrote his novel partly to assert the power of ancient pagan spirituality and the limited or constrained nature of Christianity’s sphere of influence, Espeseth has similar aims. Ruth overhears her Grandma Esther ‘had a part-Indian momma who gave her a Indian name before the [/] momma died … Grandma’s daddy got her a new, German momma who gave her a new, German name … Grandma won’t ever talk about being no Chippewa, Cherokee or Sioux; she won’t allow being no mixed-breed squaw at all.’ She believed that all of her boys, including the wayward Peter, would come ‘home’ to the Lord before she dies, but at her funeral Peter ‘speaks of the totems of the Ojibway … He tells us that the rivers underground are the veins of our mother; water is her blood. She is life and fertility. She is Mother Earth, and we who are here – especially we who are native – are home. Just like Grandma Esther prophesied, Peter has come home. He has just gone further and deeper than she ever could have believed.’
Fundamentalist Christianity has occasionally been dealt with by Australian authors (Tim Winton, for example, in the title story from his interwoven collection, The Turning). Still it is interesting to ponder what Australians will make of such a religious novel, irreligiousness being a defining element of Australian culture, viewed internationally. Certainly a great strength of the book is its rich allusiveness to the Bible, as well as to hymns and Norse and Ojibway mythology. These layers of allusion add to the work’s impact and interest and speak strongly to the maturity of Espeseth’s creative vision. One of a number of young Americans in Melbourne who have brought with them a distinctive, unselfconscious literary professionalism (along with Kevin Rabelais, Emmett Stinson and Kent MacCarter), Espeseth has, with Sufficient Grace, helped to expand the category of ‘the Australian novel’.