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Something To Marvel At

23 May
'The Killer Went Postal' what the NY Times named their review of Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips

‘The Killer Went Postal’ what the NY Times named their review of Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips

I imagined working for a publishing house would mean doubling my energies in the book industry but this has turned out to be untrue.  Since starting work running the social media for a publishing house I’ve found myself in a weird kind of heaven – it’s definitely heaven because there are plenty of books – but, I guess like ‘real heaven’, I’m morally obliged to only read (believe in) one variety of book.
I’m overdramatising here, the breadth of my reading is not being scrutinised, it simply ends up being that I read more of the books published by the company I work for because they’re readily available.

Which basically means I’ve become lazy.

And perhaps I would forever have stayed a mono-publisher-reader if it wasn’t for the generosity of a friend. This friend has gently influenced my reading habits (and in turn my life) since I met her more than 6 years ago. Maybe twice my age she has used her wisdom generously and taken simple pleasure in sharing with me some writers she has known forever.  When taken together these suggestions represent a culture, a community. They also represented a massive sea change in what and how I read, in who I was as a reader, and in part a huge chunk of my success as a reviewer. Because prior to this education, I hadn’t found my voice yet or my eyes – my pageeyes – now though it is my first instinct to hunt down the unpretentious, the tragic and the American.
This friend has given me a place where I belong by introducing me to writers who speak either in terms I can nod at or in voices I can marvel at.

On my bookshelves, in amongst a sea of spines with the same logo etched into em’ comes this hard-covered patch of deckle-edged,  beautifully designed American verses, with titles that take you places and make you feel things: Plague of Doves, Return to Earth, The Maytrees, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter… And in one way or another they were all put there by her.

I received a package recently with two of the most exquisite tomes inside it and I knew instantly who they were from. Firstly I sat them down on the table and photographed them (see below). Then I sat them on the shelf, facing outwards, and looked at them a while. Maybe 2 or 3 days. After that I decided I’d try reading one: Quiet Dell.

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The name of the latest Jayne Anne Phillips fits right in with all the others in my collection: Quiet Dell: a novel. Somehow American’s have the deepest sense of place: they can get right to the mud on the boots of a man, straight down to the salt in their skin and the burnished hills that surround them. Quiet Dell made me think of something sinister hidden in a prairie and I was not wrong. The cover is a sepia image of some kind of 1930’s fray – a graveyard perhaps a protest, digging – aren’t those shovels in the mid-ground? Closer examination shows that Phillips has turned her extremely bleak eye to the true-life crime of a one Harry Powers who famously killed multiple women after luring them with promises of security and prosperity by means of pen-paling his way into their confidences. Phillips’ grandmother took her daughter, Phillips’ mother, to see the garage where Powers committed the murders and stored the remains. This then is a personal story and Phillips has done her best to create a sense of haunting so as to convey the very deep pain his victims felt and the unfairness of it all. She writes like these savage and psychopathic wrongs were done to her kin. As a variety of feminism you could say they were. These women were desperate to feel worthy again – in their time widowed middle aged women were essentially facile, useless, left to perish (if lucky) with kind family or friends. More often alone and with no finances or chance of salvation they’d sort of end up in a living rot. Powers offered them safe passage, promised them absolution – but he delivered the opposite.

Harry Powers

Harry Powers

In modern terms it would be like some swindler luring middle aged women with the promise of smooth skin  the waistline of a twenty year old and bottomless fame. Except that’s all about vanity, in 1930’s America it was about life or death and the difference between keeping your children alive and educated or sick and trapped in poverty. The motivation for these women is clear; Powers’ less so. Through the creation of a female journalist, Emma Thornhill, Phillips views the crimes – firstly from the vantage of a woman and her, quite remarkable, children. Asta Eicher is a widowed mother of three, from a once privileged background her funds run terribly low and she eventually seeks solace in a man who promises old world respect and care of her and her children. The beginning of the book is particularly haunting as Phillips practices her extreme talents to great effect: the reader finds themselves in the Eicher household the Christmas before they’re killed. Trees are decorated. Plays are performed. The unique wonder of these children is properly established. What could have been laboured isn’t- the deaths are dealt with by absence and intimation which is to say, respect. There is no need to read the detailed demise of children at the hands of a practiced psychopath. There is no need for that. What is needed is retribution.

Crowds gather on Aug. 30, 1931, at the site of the Quiet Dell murders. Evidence of the killings was found in and around murderer Harry Powers' garage (center).

Crowds gather on Aug. 30, 1931, at the site of the Quiet Dell murders. Evidence of the killings was found in and around murderer Harry Powers’ garage (center).

Although this story captured me from beginning to end it has received criticism for its positivity- I suspect that she has done for this story what we all do for our children: she has made it good when there was little good in it. Powers was nonredeemable and his handiwork devastating. Instead of getting mired in this without pause Phillips has created a savior in Thornhill and Thornhill continues to act as a counterpoint to every horrible thing we discover Powers to have done. Where he kills children, she adopts them. Where he destroys the possibility of love later in life she finds and flourishes in a romantic tableau almost too saccharine to believe. Where he kicks a dog, she picks it up and feeds it, houses it, loves it. I can see how this could be perceived as excessively sweet by the more jaded critics who define quality in relation to misery. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that took creative license to make the world a nicer place rather than just dug into the depths of a common despair. I praise Phillips for this. I don’t think it will win her any awards but it will live inside my head as another world where good balances evil and light really does lurk at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

As for my friend she stopped reading a while ago – too many changes in her life perhaps, I’m not qualified to know, but I do know that if you’re lucky enough to have a friend like her your own inner world will never stop, will never be dull.
I intend to catalogue a series of reviews/essays about the books which she has given me, I’m going to create a category called #Dell – for this title and for another reason perhaps only she will notice.