The International Writers Magazine: Book Reviews
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
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
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,
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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