Union Cross has become more than a place filled with barbecue pit-cookers … selling their famous Brunswick Stew
By Tara Staley
Union Cross is also filled with carpenter bees and bumble bees, beeswax, ancestors and descendants, complex relationships, hand-made quilts, fast cars, butterflies and flutterbys.
Need To Breathe is a complex book in terms of structure and characters. The narrator is Millie, the heavenly “incorporeal agent” of a woman who died giving birth in 1922. She’s been assigned as the guardian angel to a girl baby, Claire, who survives a botched abortion in 1975.
Despite the fact that Millie’s own daughter, Mae, an orphan, still struggles on earth with dementia and careless “caregivers,” Millie looks after Claire, sometimes reluctantly.
Her antagonist emissary is Liam from the underworld: ‘His eyes flash orange, a mirror of this horrible place, full of flames and workers that never rest. There are thousands of them, faceless men and women filling coal carts on this ashy plain. They start gathering around Liam and me as we fight. Punch! “You thug!” Punch! “You scumbag!” He grabs my wrists to restrain me.’
Manda and Mick are Claire’s accidental parents. Manda, mentally ill, obsessed with cheerleading, product of stern and judgmental parents married “pay-the-bills” Mick, a sympathetic character with a beer belly who “works in hydraulics.”
Mick gets his daughter to her frequent medical appointments and bonds with her much more closely than most fathers usually bond with daughters. They are bound together of necessity.
Manda confesses: “My job is to make homes beautiful, and I wreck my own. I earned a degree that amounts to harmony and synchronization, and I’m an expert at nothing but discord. Look at the way my relationships end up–my mother, my husband, my daughter.” Release, I say. Let it all out. Maybe I should have been a landscape architect…”
The prose in this book is often breath-taking: “BLACKBERRY WINTER OCCURS in Union Cross at the same time you see the rhododendrons’ pom-poms, bird fest at the feeders. Mr. Grosbeak’s breast is so pink it would make the blameless blush. Spring is not too terribly different from what Heaven looks like year ’round. It’s a cross between blooms and diamonds–softness, color, sparkles. The sky is a luscious shade of tangerine and there are clouds of all colors–colors you don’t see on earth. They make music and wrap around you like robes. There are several Chambers, like cloud-enclosed skywalks, filled with Columns and Pearls and Doors and Bottles and divine Whatnots. They say God collects people’s tears in those Bottles and holds them close in love.”
And the prose rushes at the reader relentlessly: ‘Sometimes that first memory is seeded deeper, though, like a cavity. Foreboding like a pair of mating mosquitoes. You don’t like to mentally go back to That Place, where you banged on a locked door, visited Daddy in jail. Or maybe it’s how Mama swiped a finger across a bleary, hollow eye and said, “There’s no use. I can’t make him love me.” The pain, the esprit, something about that First Memory.’
Of Claire, Millie says: “She marvels over lattice and cocker spaniels, louvers and copper eaves, green shutters and screened porches. She sees people’s white rocking chairs, and that makes her think about her daddy sitting out in the barn, listening to the bug zapper go off while the moon sings Father Abraham.”
Mick’s mother, Estelle, is, of course, the antithesis of Manda’s mother, Mrs. Willard. We also meet Big Mac, Claire’s chum who works at a fast-food joint. And Carly and Charlie, the kids next door – the Vances. Charlie’s love for Claire deepens, despite her smoking, cussing, delinquent life style – and despite her chemical burns and palsied knee. He loves her red hair and freckles and her goofy aphorisms.
The book follows the Life of Claire from NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) to the prom and then to her own impending motherhood. It is, perhaps, the most unusual book I have read in the past year. The character development is excellent, and I was drawn into Millie’s celestial sphere in spite of my preconception about such a narrator.
Claire cares for her elderly great aunts, Grace and Gertha, and they care for her. She brightens while they fade away into the Southern hereafter.
This is the sort of prose that compelled me to keep reading: “The stars flirt with our eyes tonight, and the cold worlds wane as I tell Claire how much I love her. Love, the ginseng of existence. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, so– She and Mick start their annual stamp-licking and coupon-tearing, scabbing over the deals, saying that, surely, if you enter enough Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, you’re bound to win something. The night fudges friendly as they settle in, saying “what color is your Jaguar?” Claire says red. It matches her hair. And Mick says blue, although I know what he’s really thinking. He’s getting a great deal, three girlie mags for seventy percent off the cover price.”
I am giving this book only three stars because despite the fine, fine writing, the book is peppered with homonyms used incorrectly, misspellings, misplaced apostrophes, incorrect verb tenses, and words used completely out of context. It’s almost as if the author occasionally uses the Thesaurus, picks an unusual word, and plops it into a sentence, malapropos. The malapropisms serve to distract the reader and interrupt the rhythms of this otherwise wonderful book.