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The International Writers Magazine
: Book Reviews

NOTICE by Heather Lewis
With an afterword by Alan Gurganus

Serpent's Tail, London, 2004, 217 pp. ISBN: 1-85242-456-7
*US Publisher: Consortium: 208 pages
A Charlie Dickinson Review

Before her suicide in 2002 at the age of forty, novelist Heather Lewis published two contemporary noirs, HOUSE RULES and THE SECOND SUSPECT, both under the imprint of Nan Talese. The two novels got critical acclaim. A third novel by Lewis, NOTICE, however, languished for more than ten years until British publisher Serpent's Tail brought it out this year.

NOTICE begins with the sentence, "For the longest time I didn't call it turning tricks." This is the story of an unnamed teenage female prostitute. She plies her trade at a commuter train station for a tony bedroom community in what might be Westchester County, New York. Teenage prostitution, hardcore drug use, paranoid thinking, chilling sadism, sexual abuse of a daughter, doomed lesbian relationships, and suicidal thoughts suggest an unsettling book. Obviously, many publishers judged this novel too outre, as in noncommercial.

But NOTICE is, of the three novels, the one closest to the truth of Heather Lewis. That much of the story was also present in her life gives NOTICE an entrancing power that goes well beyond author research in the library. What Lewis writes about, of course, has been depicted in any number of pulp fiction novels over the decades. But in the hands of Heather Lewis, this is the stuff of literature.

How good was Heather Lewis? In a splendid afterword (and also a welcome coda, given the author's suicide), novelist Alan Gurganus (OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL, PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS, and other works) relates teaching at Sarah Lawrence College when he went to a student reading of poetry and prose. A freshman, Heather Lewis stood up and began reading from what would be her first novel, HOUSE RULES. Gurganus knew two sentences in he was in the presence of a wondrous writing talent. Afterwards, he volunteered to be her reader for life (which he became, even though she never enrolled in any of his classes).
Told in first person, the nameless anti-heroine of NOTICE has an alluring voice. Precociously hip and knowingly disassociated at times, she evades the feeling for what she is actually doing, ruminating on endless details about how whomever she is with sees her. A performer as if in a trance, she never completes the thought to walk away. She simply can't put off her craving for the inchoate feeling she might find if she stays to play the willing victim again. She has a hypersensibility for nuances of gesture, one as simple as walking across the room and picking up a pencil: What that might imply, at that precise moment, for who is playing whom. She gives us a meditation on the unfolding of a lesbian affair, seemingly capturing every proffered hand, every skin flush, every finger tracing. A meditation interrupted and propelled by violent, sadistic episodes.

By novel's end, Lewis's unsparing vision renders NOTICE as a last testament, in a way, to a human in a Dantean prison for psyches at war with themselves. Many might avert their eyes, not finish the book. But those who do more likely will gain a compassion for the tragedy of any sexually abused child stumbling forward, trancelike, through life, offering themselves up to any available hammer that might strike them back down. Revolting in its beauty, NOTICE is also a triumph for Heather Lewis, who in the forge of pain fashioned an original sensibility, which in its overdue appearance is anything but commonplace in modern fiction.
As Gurganus concludes, "... a suicide note of genius. NOTICE is the plainest statement of the greatest pain imaginable."

© Charlie Dickinson `ocotber 5th 2004

See also The Lesser Evil

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