Struggling with a mother's mental illness
Author T. Greenwood's second novel has been highly anticipated since her debut, Breathing Water, won the Sherwood Anderson Award for best first novel in 1999. With Nearer than the Sky, Greenwood blends past and present, memory and reality, and the two separate lives of the main character—her family life, and the life she has chosen for herself in adulthood to show the effects that a mentally ill mother has on the people surrounding her.
The illness in question is the mysterious Munchausen Syndrome. Mothers with this disorder are so desperate for attention that they invent or even cause illness in their children. These women are unable to admit their abusiveness and have lives full of lies and denial. Greenwood is especially intrigued by this aspect of the disorder.
Indie Brown, the central figure in the novel, has worked hard to escape the traumatic experiences of her youth. Nevertheless, the memories of emotional and physical abuse still haunt her, and Indie's memories do not match the stories her mother tells. While Indie remembers the pain, her mother only recalls how she repeatedly "saved" her children from harm. As Indie writes in her journal, "In this story, in every story, she's always the hero."Far away geographically and emotionally from her childhood home, Indie is brought back to reality with a sudden phone call: "Ma's sick." Indie must go home to Arizona and face the pain of the memories and the reality that her mother and sister are both unwell.
By switching between the past and the present, Greenwood presents the reader with two stories: those of Indie's family life in 1970s Arizona, and Indie's independent life in the 1990s, complete with her view of the lives led by her sister and mother. Through these intertwined stories, the author reveals the long-term effects of Indie's childhood experiences.
Greenwood successfully keeps the reader on edge by exposing the eventual outcome of the story, but withholding her explanation of that outcome until the end of the book. Despite its disquieting subject, the novel is not entirely serious in tone; humor, irony, happiness, and melancholy all exist in Indie's life—as they do in most people's. Nearer than the Sky is a superb second effort for Greenwood.
Emily Zibart, a student at Columbia University, was a summer intern at BookPage.