Two couples -- businessman Bobby Rose and his artist wife, Carole Ridingham; his partner, Coleman Snow, and Snow's wife, Ruth Farr -- have gone on a walking tour in Wales, during which a fatal accident occurs. The question of what happened preoccupies not only an ensuing negligence trial but also the narrator, Bobby and Carole's daughter, Susan, who lives alone in her parents' house near the coast of Maine. Assisted by court transcripts, a notebook computer containing Ruth Farr's journal, and a young vagrant who has taken to camping on her doorstep, Susan lays open the moral predicament at the heart of the book: we are culpable beings, even though we live in a world of imperfect knowledge.
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This walking tour ends, literally, at a jumping-off place. It ends, too, at the end of the world. Kathryn Davis's beautifully written tale begins and ends in Wales, a country she would have us believe is looped and configured with myths that govern modern life as well as they did in the days of yore. Four Americans--two couples--make a trip there at the end of the 20th century. By journey's end, two of the four will disappear in a mist on the Gower peninsula. Years later, Susan, the daughter of one of the couples, cobbles their story together from diaries, court documents, and letters. The novel teeters between the Wales of the walking tour and the gray, mysterious, post-Apocalyptic world she endures.
Davis is very funny, in the English-country-house comedy-of-manners tradition--on the tour itself, making free with the unsavory combination of precious historicizing and raw sexual tension that characterizes such holidays. And she may well have a thing about vegetarians, who are well represented. "St. David's? Most Welsh churches seemed to be named for him, a man who subsisted on leeks and water and caused a hill to grow under his feet so he could address his disciples from a lofty position, more or less in the spirit of modern-day vegetarians." The satire jostles along nicely, full of prickly insults and off-balance observations.
Bobby Rose and Coleman Snow, the two husbands, run a company, SnowWhite & RoseRead, that has invented a kind of overwriting device, a computer program that detects vulnerability in texts and allows readers to rewrite them. This program may or may not have precipitated a kind of holocaust of meaning, where Susan is forced to dwell now that her parents have quit the scene. If this all sounds a little vague, it is. In retrospect, Susan muses, "But how did it work, I wonder? By which I mean, morally, not technically. What came over people that they'd let other people fool around with their words, their sentences, their ideas, their dreams?" Dunno, but at a certain point, one starts to wonder how it worked technically, not morally. Don't expect a punch-line, end-of-novel answer, for it never comes. Davis hangs a huge amount of millennial, late-capitalist baggage from this invention, and yet we never properly find out what exactly it is. You can make out the kernel, just barely, within the mist. But the mist starts to give you a headache, and you yearn to get back to the really rather good yarn of the four people going for a walk in Wales. On the other hand, a headachy mist is just the effect Davis seems to be after in her fourth novel. For readers seeking to be unmoored, this is a heady, misty read indeed. --Claire DedererFrom the Publisher:
Davis's fourth and thoroughly engaging novel (after Hell) is a witty blend of genres: mystery, courtroom drama, futuristic tale and a reworking of Welsh myth. In some unspecified year in the 21st century, when ideologies have transformed to the point where "the whole idea of edge... [has]... become a thing of the past," Susan R. Rose hides away on Maine's coast, in what was once her family home, reconstructing the events that led to her mother's disappearance and certain death during a walking tour through Wales, when Susan was 13. Equipped with letters and cards sent by her mother, a famous painter; a stack of unlabeled photos; a transcript from a wrongful death suit; and a laptop notebook her mother's oldest friend (and deepest rival) kept, Susan pieces together the spats, jealousies and sudden couplings of the tourists on a pilgrimage. Although she is at first alone, Susan's privacy is invaded by Monkey, a boy encamped nearby. He's a Strag, a member of a futuristic culture that is propertyless and thus lawless, "a triumph of the virtual." As in any good mystery, several possible suspects emerge with a variety of reasons to have killed Carole Ridingham Rose (even Monkey could hold a clue), yet Davis manages to keep this plot line alive while ingeniously weaving her imaginative settings. The playfulness of Davis's writing is irresistible. Laced with fairy tales, neologisms and poems, her prose is clever, sometimes dazzling, skating lightly over complex ideas that otherwise might bog down the narrative. Looking at an Andy Warhol painting, Susan's father says to her mother, "I like it. It's like money; it skips the middle step." One insistent theme surfacing in this highly original novel is the relationships between property and morality, between time and space. Davis's take on these subjects is intellectually rigorous, while the suspense remains satisfyingly taut. Author tour. (Nov.) Copyright 1999
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