The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder

August 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

How refreshing to read a book with a child narrator like Juliet. She sulks, she explores, she wants to be more grown up than she is, she wants to behave like a spoilt child when she’s too old to do so, and she’s intelligent without being in the least precocious. Of course real children overthink things sometimes, but children in fiction who overthink things all seem to turn out like little copies of each other, with barely an original thought in their too-clever heads. Not that being original should concern children, of course, but it does concern readers if the same character turns up in book after book written by vastly different authors.

Juliet, however, is delightfully ordinary–although her story is anything but. The Juliet Stories, called a novel-in-stories, begins when Juliet travels to Nicaragua with her family in the early eighties. Her father Bram is working with a peacekeeping organisation to support the post-revolution government, and her mother Gloria is left in the city for long stretches with Juliet and her two brothers while Bram lives out his political activism dreams–being socially responsible while abandoning his marital and paternal duties. It’s a strange existence for the children, idyllic and free in many ways that were not possible in their American lives, but with danger always hovering. Danger is perhaps the one aspect where Snyder’s handling of the tension falls down–when Juliet’s brother Keith is lost at a rally, or when the family is ambushed and their car hijacked, for example–the moment of terror is over before it’s had a chance to sink in. But this is a smaller problem than it might seem, since ultimately The Juliet Stories is a book about the small things that turn into a life, the way a child, self-centred in the way all children are the centre of everything, becomes an adult scarred by tragedy, grief and a million tiny soul fractures.

When Keith becomes ill with cancer, the family–minus Bram, at first–moves back to North America to live with Juliet’s grandmother. Juliet feels the loss of her grief-stricken mother as much as she mourns her brother, and Snyder charts the slow breaking apart of the family as their changing forces of gravity no longer pull them into one another’s orbit. In the later part of the book other characters take over the narration along with Juliet, whose maturing voice is well paced as she tries to make sense of the impact her time in Nicaragua had on her life.

The Juliet Stories works so well because Snyder gives her narrator a great everyday perspicacity, reminding us of those poignant moments of growing-up when a minuscule realisation seems to shift the world on its axis, both because of the realisation and the sudden understanding that everyone else–even the most dimwitted adult–already knows it. It’s a difficult business, growing up, and a difficult business writing about it in a way that can interest an adult readership, but Snyder’s thoughtful and elegant book pulls it off.


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