“The Lace Reader” is a challenging book. It is not written to be easy to read. From the very beginning we are told that it is full of lies and deceptions. By the end it is clear that this is not at all the book that it may have appeared to be. If you pick this up looking for a murder mystery, set in modern day Salem, investigated by a woman gifted with the second sight, then you may end up feeling that you’re in the right cinema but have ended up watching the wrong movie.
“The Lace Reader” sets out to do something entirely different and something that I found much more original and satisfying. It makes the process of seeing the patterns of our own lives, the significance and consequences of our choices, the impact of the hurts we suffer and inflict along the way, problematic. It leads us to understand that truth comes from asking the right question and being open to unpalatable answers. In this view of the world, the truth about our lives is an emergent, malleable, elusive thing that we see with the corners of our eyes but which we must find a way to see if we before we can truly be ourselves.
One of the refreshing things about “The Lace Reader” is that Brunonia Barry manages to do justice to this complex theme and still produce an exciting, accessible novel that carries real emotional weight.
She does this by writing a novel that uses four literary devices that together act as a continuous invitation to the reader to work things out for themselves.
The first device is the unreliable narrator. Most of the novel is written in the first person present tense from the point of view of Towner, a troubled woman, returning to her childhood home and being forced by events to confront all the things she has been trying to forget. The opening lines of the book tell us how we should hear what the main character tells us:
“My name is Towner Whitney. No that’s not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time.
I am a crazy woman… That last part is true.”
Brunonia Barry writes Towner Whitney in such a way that we can care about her, and hope for her without necessarily believing her, which gives the reader much the same relationship to Towner as most of the people in her life who love her.
For me part of the joy of the novel was trying to understand how much of what I was reading was true.
The second literary device, “The Lace Reader’s Guide” is there to help the reader with this task. Lace Reading is a skill akin to reading the Tarot. The lace is used as a focal point in which the Lace Reader discovers the true answer to the Seekers question. This answer sits in “the space between what is real and what is only imagined.” The secrets of Lace Reading are set out in The Lace Reader’s Guide, extracts from which are sprinkled through the book. Their distribution is not random. They are the reader’s way markers and each contains something that we need to bear in mind when reading the next section of the text.
Just when you think you understand the narrative thrust of the book, Brunoia Barry introduces her third literary device, a piece of “fiction” written by Towner as an act of therapy intended to enable her to recover lost memories and restore an integrated sense of self. In this section, Towner’s voice is younger and more intense. The action is compelling. The text could be a free-standing story. The fact that it is just another set of strands in the lace of the story only makes it stronger.
The final device Barry uses is a skillful weaving of past and present in the narration. This is often used in thrillers to feed backstory or to heighten pace but Barry uses it for something more. She helps us to understand that past and present are self-made fictions that over-write one another. Towner’s unreliable memory means that her present is often being rewritten by what she discovers about her own past.
I’ve focused here on the mechanics of the story and the ideas behind it. That doesn’t do just to Barry’s strong evocation of place and people. The island home she describes, with its caves and wild dogs and endless games of hide and seek of all kinds has a permanent home in my imagination.
I reached the end of the novel wanting to read it again, this time with the conscious understanding that the title is meant to describe not just the main characters in the book but the role in which Barry has cast me as the reader.