May 10, 2005

A Door Near Here, by Heather Quarles

Good literature is supposed to be ageless. One of the better examples of this timelessness is Heather Quarles' A Door Near Here. Though this Delacorte Press Prize winning novel is slanted for YA, Quarles' book resonated hugely with me as an adult reader because I sensed its truth. The first time I read it was the first time I seriously contemplated completing an MFA. Why? Because the book convinced me that it was worth it to write. Good pacing, realistic dialogue and an appropriately enigmatic ending are just the sprinkling on the donut here. This book's excellence stems from the truth it tells about the life of a family where reality and responsibility have become irreparably entangled. Fifteen-year-old Katherine and her siblings, Tracy and Douglas, hope to shield their youngest sister from the fact of their mother's alcoholism. They try to keep the house clean, keep things repaired, and food on the table. But five months of silence and sleeping hasn't got anyone fooled. Even little Alisa knows that Mommy drinks bad smelling stuff that makes her not bathe, fall over a lot, lose her jobs, and sleep. Mommy doesn't kiss her goodnight. Mommy doesn't read her bedtime stories. Mommy doesn't even read her mail. She hasn't signed a permission slip, tardy notice or a sick note in months. Everything falls to Katherine, and that means everything is falling apart. Alisa, a fragile eight year old, seems to be losing her grip on reality. She repeatedly runs away from school, trying to find a door from her mystical Narnia books. She insists that if she just finds Narnia, Aslan will make all of her mother's troubles disappear. Her older siblings are worried. They can't talk to their father, who, on his second wife and family, doesn't really care about Alisa - she isn't his daughter, and if he comes and saves them what does that mean for her? Most teens would love to prove to the world that they can run their own lives, but it's not the walk in the park Katherine, Tracy and Douglas expected. The very real fear of DSS and the police splitting them up prevent them from asking for help, 'til there's nowhere left to turn. The sink overflows, the family gets the flu, the dishes keep piling up - but they keep on thinking they've just about got everything worked out... until the unexpected.

The end of everything, when it comes, is swift. Then Katherine does everything she can to keep her family together, including turning on the one person who is genuinely trying to help her.

This meritous book was Heather Quarles' MFA thesis, and what a tremendous sense of accomplishment it must have given her to publish it, and to reassure herself that yes, she was right -- she did have talent and it had been worthwhile to get that MFA. However, from such a promising beginning, there hasn't been anything more written by Heather Quarles in the YA world. Maybe she's working on something now, but it always saddens me a little to be unable to find anything else of hers. She has published, according to the book flap, short stories and essays as well - if anyone else runs across something of hers, let me know.

Whenever I'm feeling like I can't write worth crap, and there's no point to any of this, I take a look at this book. The truth is found in the writing -- the dialogue breathes life into fear and anger, the chronic feelings of helpless love and suppressed rage the main character feels. The first person narration gives a true immediacy to the piece, and drags readers into the painful places with the family. I look at this writing, and know that these are the truths still worth being told. And after reading this book again, I hope we're up to it.


Sherry said...

I just now finished reading this book, having added it to my TBR list quite a while ago on your recommendation.

I'm quite impreseed and also disappointed to read that Ms. Quarles has no more novels for me to read. This one really was "truth worth being told."

tanita s. davis said...

I'm so glad you also enjoyed it!
And I, too, am still searching for more of this writer's work. It may be that she now writes under a pseudonym, but I sincerely hope that somewhere, wherever she is, she's still writing.