Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Book review: Lisey's Story, by Stephen King

Lisey's Story by Stephen King is not just one novel; it's a fantasy, a mystery, a horror story, and a love story. At 509 pages, it's long. It's also confusing, at first. But keep reading, and what seems strange will become normal, what is mystifying, clear. The odd vocabulary will become a part of your own, because the story will work its way into your mind and heart.

Lisey (rhymes with cee-cee) Landon is the widow of famous author Scott Landon, who died two years ago. She has four sisters, three of whom still play a large part in her life in rural Maine. As the book opens, Lisey has yet to clean out Scott's study, and the academics are getting impatient. (Scott Landon won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.) Lisey's oldest sister Amanda, always troubled, is veering towards the deep end. Add to the mix a crazy man who believes he is on a mission from academia to "persuade" her to give up the papers, and Lisey has her hands full.

The literal time course of most of the book is just a few days, but it actually spans many years of Lisey's memories. She recalls her marriage to the celebrity author (with whom she often traveled but was rarely recognized herself), a love story with may tender moments and many shared private sayings and words ("smuck" for a certain curse word, for instance). There is also mystery here, because Scott did and said odd and troubling things, but it is unclear what it all means. (Was Scott crazy? What really happened in his past?) These aspects of the book, which carry the narrative well past the mid-way point, are utterly captivating.

The horror subplot of a threatening outsider impinges on the this intimate tale of love and madness. As it proceeds, it does put Lisey in jeopardy and give her the motivation to go beyond her own boundaries. Once she does that, however, the threat no longer seems real, making the last last quarter of the book not as compelling.

There are some lovely images to be found in Lisey's Story, like that of the language pool from which words, stories, and myths are pulled. And the fantasy element, the strange place called Boo'ya Moon, is described in such enchanting detail that I can see it in my mind as I write. More than anything I found myself wanting to use Scott's words, like "smuck"; or "bool," which means joke, riddle, or trick; or "strap it on," for gathering your courage. SOWISA, "strap on whenever it seems appropriate," appears over and over, and for good reason.

Lisey Landon is a terrific heroine, for although she is subject to human frailties, she is brave. She doesn't seem to realize this, but Scott did, and so do others. Little Lisey, as her sisters called her when she was a kid, knows how to strap it on. Scott Landon, on the other hand, is more of an archetype. He is the gifted and troubled artist who required the steadying hand of a spouse to be productive.

It's perhaps unfortunate that Stephen King felt the need to perpetuate the stereotype linking great art with madness, but he puts fantastic spin on it. It's as if he said, "What if the places we go when we are carried away by imagination are real for some people?" I, for one, am glad he did, because he's created one heck of a tale out of it. SOWISA, baby.

Cross-posted to Blogcritics.

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