Like many of you, I’m behind in my reading, but the book I’ve chosen this time is only eight years old, rather than a century or two. That book is Mary Swan’s The Deep, winner of the 2001 O Henry Award, and it’s a brief but exquisitely told tale of two young women who volunteer for canteen duty in France during the First World War. Esther and Ruth are twins — and on that fact, the weight of this story rests. They think and function as a single being, and to emphasize this fact, the author tells their story in the first person plural, a technique I’ve never before run across in fiction. Yet Esther and Ruth are not the lone narrators. There are ten points of view in this novella — yes, you heard that right. This is a book that isn’t afraid to push the limits of the novella form, which almost never deviates from the single perspective of one character. Yet this chorus of voices is vital to understanding what becomes of these two quiet, well-bred, mysterious women.
As the story opens, we sense that Esther and Ruth are dead, no doubt as casualties of war. Gradually we learn about their past, of a mother chronically depressed and ill since their birth, a malicious brother, a kindly but distant father, a teacher who inspired them to serve their country, the soldier Hugh who lost his best friend in combat. As their story unfolds, the variety of voices — a supervisor, former classmates, a doctor, a military sentry — and their distance from the twins suggest that their fate was more complex and ominous than we might expect, an event that begs insight from anyone who’d ever known them. A disturbing ending unfolds with silent grace and spare eloquence through the chorus of voices that weave this story together. Fascinating also is the skill with which the author entices us with incomplete information. For example, Swan introduces the voice of a sentry, who we place on the battlefront, so that his observations allow certain conclusion about the twins’ deaths. By the time we meet him again, we know more, including his actual location, which changes everything he sees. There’s lots of these shifts in this wonderful feat of fragmentary storytelling which never loses its unity of focus in the powerful image of the twins who share one mind and soul. The dramatic tension builds, and the pages turn, because we sense that each of this multitude of voices knows more than we could guess about the story’s end. The Deep has a beautiful consistency of tone that evokes both its time and its two main characters. And since we never seem to learn the lesson, it speaks to us yet again about the tragedy of war.
The novella was published in 2002 by The Porcupine’s Quill.