Consider a complicated knot. Though it demands patience and determination, most could untie it without understanding at all how it was tied. Sometimes a knot is tied so tightly as to render it all but impossible to untangle, despite all patient effort. Sometimes a knot is barely so, the coils slipping away from each other at the slightest touch. As an interesting challenge, it is decidedly the complicated but possible knot that is most enjoyable. So, too, with "knotty" books. They demand a patience, a quiet determination, and the reward for that effort is great.
This description of a novel as "knotty" comes directly from author Alyson Hagy in discussing her most recent book Scribe. And it (like countless sentences in the book itself) is a perfect choice of words. Like the best puzzles, Scribe demands the reader pay attention, asks the reader to delay gratification, and encourages the reader with small revelations along the way.
Scribe opens fully in progress, and though some would describe it as being set in a dystopian future, a more apt description of its setting might be an alternative past. It has the hazy feeling of a dream just barely remembered (wait, did that really happen or did I dream it?), like the fuzzy edges of unclear memory. Just like in an uncanny dream sequence, the feeling you are left with is unmistakable and visceral.
The book is organized into several sections, with the theme of letters running through each section heading. The main character is never named, but she is the scribe of the title, and her role as letter-writer is vital both to her and to the community that surrounds her. This novel is about words, their power to enslave and absolve us, and about truth and tale-telling, myth and realism wrapped in one beautiful package.
Right about halfway through the book, the scribe confronts the man who holds the economic and political power in her community, and he offers her some trade, some "things you'll like, just to keep you honest." He is pompous, condescending, and greasy, but he is in control. The strength it takes to deny his offer is tremendous; the way she does it makes me want to stand up and cheer:
"I'm as honest as I want to be."
He wields a power over her; in fact, he does her harm with that power. But she, too, holds a power, equal to his own: She gets to decide how to tell the story.
So, what is this book about? It's about sisters and loss, it's about pain and rebirth, it's about being a strong woman in a world that only values male power, it's maybe even about hope and love in the midst of darkness. Alyson Hagy has tied the knot well. It is a thing to be admired, but it is also a thing to be untangled. Give the loose end a tug and see where it takes you. It is well worth your effort, reader.
For more about this amazing work and the author herself, see my interview with Alyson Hagy.
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