“Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprising pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware. And this realization was in the music, somehow, or in the way Shamengwa played it.”
Thus spake the voice of Louise Erdrich in THE PLAGUE OF DOVES, a novel that is itself like a river: sometimes gentle and calm; at other times deep, dark and dangerous; more often than not, tumbling the reader through complex currents of emotion ranging from outright laughter to despair and ultimately into a lingering melancholy touched by a glimmer of hope.
As is usual when I read Erdrich, I stayed up well into the night to finish this book in one sitting. From the tragic opening chapter and the repercussions of the act that shadowed the story right until the pragmatic voice of Doctor Cordelia Lochren finally resolves all the unanswered questions, the subtle threads that bind the characters and their lives together across time and generations and race are woven into a story that, as the “strange sweetness” of violin music does, shatters our expectations.
Beautifully written, both lyrical and mystical, the story Erdrich tells never glosses over the cruel legacies that we both inherit from our ancestors and ourselves plant for our descendants. From the surreal voice of Marn Wolde to the iconoclastic bantering of the Milk brothers, the characters discover that the lives we live are the sum of our past and of our own choices: “freedom,” says the gifted violinist Shamengwa, “is not only in the running but in the heart.” And, as Judge Antone Bazil Coutts reflects on his life – from a torrid youthful affair with an older woman to his early work as a grave digger – he realises that “only the dead [are] at equilibrium.”
When one reads THE PLAGUE OF DOVES, there is no equilibrium: one is swept along from page to page and left gasping at the poignant dignity and utter humanity of the characters inhabiting this must-read novel.