Whisper Hollow, by Chris Cander, $17.05 (Other Press)
What an incredible storyline. Chris Cander weaves together separate stories of two different women who each receive their share of indescribable grief. The contrast between the two characters is just brilliant. They couldn’t be more different from each other, and yet, through the author’s distinct characterization, with their unique voices and peculiar habits, I felt like I was inside the minds of them both.
Myrthen Bergmann exhibits her sense of entitlement at an early age when the novel begins in 1916. Unbelievable tragedy completely dismantles her family and she is plunged into a life of utter loneliness where she becomes possessed by her dream of becoming God’s bride, of becoming a sister at Mount Carmel.
While Myrthen spends the rest of her life trying to separate herself from her family, Alta Krol’s life is defined by hers. She takes care of her father and her brothers from a young age, and even when she entangles herself in a less-than-satisfying marriage, she finds true happiness in her son, and cares for her family with supreme tenderness.
As Myrthen grows into a young adult, her character becomes harder and harder to sympathize with. Her sheer neglect of other people’s feelings and lives leaves the reader aghast with how cold a person can be. Her world of religion isn’t as hard to relate to as I thought it would be when her character first explores Christianity. Cander paints her piety as a menacing tool to carry out her selfish desires, which only deepens the reader’s distaste for her. The Christian world that she claims to be devoted to is a stark contradiction to her ruthless actions. We root, however, for Alta’s newfound happiness when she falls in love with the man she had always harbored feelings for. Ironically her life’s meaning falls into the hands of Myrthen, who could never understand a true family bond.
Cander’s ability to aptly portray the lives of these two women over the span of almost fifty years is truly enthralling. It was refreshing to feel as if I was almost growing up with the characters, and each period of their lives was as genuine as the one before it.
Myrthen’s greed and Alta’s bliss is blended in a breathless momentum of events, the complex plot reminding the reader of the intricacies of an Agatha Christie novel, and we are left shaken as the residents of Verra, West Virginia. Myrthen blindly sinks herself into her life of prayer and isolation, while Alta struggles to hold her life together. Just like the men of her town who spend their lives mining under the earth, Alta’s life becomes enshrouded in darkness. She has never minded her own needs, and when she suddenly has no choice to, she feels “the coal-mining town with mountains like arms around her, always squeezing.”
Part 2 of the novel introduces a whole new set of characters at a point where the reader might have invested already too much time in the first part. The scenes get heavy very quickly and there’s only so much tragedy one can take. Myrthen’s lack of respect of human life becomes a little too vicious. Lidia, the protagonist of Part 2, is as captivating of a character as the rest, but her secrets are a lot to take on. Gabriel’s somewhat psychic abilities are a bit of a stretch and could be done without.
I thought Cander did an excellent job, however, of redeeming Alta’s extreme loss. It was easy to become attached to her character and she deserved some sense of relief. After living such a domesticated life with little regard to her own wants, doting over the men in her family, she finally finds peace in another woman who provides her with something she could not have found at the hands of anyone else. With so many threads running through this novel, Cander positively wraps up the lives of these authentic characters in a satisfying way.
Taylor Ropas is a former PEN intern. She has a B.A. in English Writing from the College of Staten Island. She also has worked as an Assistant Teacher, helping francophone children with their English. Taylor works at Northwood Investors and resides in Staten Island. If you have an upcoming reading or book party in the city and want to be considered for our series at KGB Bar, email Taylor at email@example.com.