By Steven Robert Allen
APRIL 19, 1999:
For all the wrong reasons, it was extremely difficult to put this book down.
Hummingbird House tells the tale of a 40-year-old woman from Indiana named Kate Banner who delivers the babies of poor women in Nicaragua. She's been in Latin America eight long years. One night one of Kate's patients dies after giving birth in the bottom of a boat. For a variety of tortured personal reasons, Kate decides that it's time to head back to the United States. She breaks it off with her Soldier of Fortune, white bread, revolutionary boyfriend and starts the long, slow journey back home.
On the way, she makes a stopover at a friend's place in Guatemala. A bunch of stuff happens. Her best friend dies. She chats with people at length about Chinese dissidents and Guatemalan death squads. She runs out of money. She flirts around with a priest. She does a lot of waiting and makes a few phone calls.
Some fine moments bubble out of this sea of otherwise bland text. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. It's simply not a good novel. If Hummingbird House offers any real attraction--and it obviously did for me because I chawed through the entire damned thing--it's because the book could almost be considered the quintessential bad literary novel.
The reasons for this are many. Certainly the dialogue is fake, sloppy and unnatural in the worst possible way. People don't talk like this. Almost every bit of conversation splattering across these pages is halting, stiff and unbelievable.
Quirky yet deeply ineffective, Henley shuffles between third and first person and inserts haphazard Spanish phrases into the text without the slightest hint of grace. All technique and no heart, the narrative, such as it is, shrivels and quickly dies among this muck of chintzy textbook MFA experimentalism.
Likewise, the characters are weak, both as authorial creations and as human beings. Kate is particularly awful. She is so poorly fleshed out that when her best friend Maggie finally dies, and Kate flies off the handle in agony, breaking plates and shaking her fist at the sky, it's absolutely impossible to care.
Another irritation is that Kate's life revolves almost completely around the men in her life. At one point she says, "Before Deaver there was Paul. Maggie's brother. You could mark a life that way. By the men in it." And for the most part, she does.
The back of the book tells us that Henley wrote this novel during a five-month trip to Central America and Mexico. It reads like a book written on vacation with relentless attempts to inject exotic elements into what is essentially a very pedestrian story. It might have worked out better if the setting was Indiana. Henley shoehorns in many, many catalogued lists of objective details about life in Latin America, but she ultimately neglects to populate her literary landscape with believable characters.
What we get instead is a collection of cardboard, do-gooder, over-privileged, dogmatic, estadounidense leftists who all act, talk and look pretty much the same. Suspiciously, Latinos are relegated to the background or characterized in the most stereotypical fashion as either heart of gold activists or helpless, heart of gold poor folks.
Finally, the language Henley uses is typically either clichéd--"Maria as a girl in her first communion dress smiled across the years" (in reference to an old photo)--or precious--"She shook her head as though to dislodge confusion." All this makes the entire story seem dishonest and inhuman. The language is also frequently excessive, saying much more than needs to be said, spoiling all mystery, stripping the story of all requisite tension.
The author previously published two collections of short stories, Friday Night at Silver Star and The Secret of Cartwheels. She has also published a book of poems called Back Roads. Her stories have been anthologized in all the right places, and she currently teaches creative writing at Purdue University.
Hummingbird House is her first novel. Yes, it sucks, but first novels are notoriously difficult beasts to vanquish. Perhaps in the future Henley will write wonderfully ingenious fictions, truer than fact, which weave stories tightly into the fabric of her readers' awed minds. This novel, however, is an artistic mistake. I only hope that Henley uses it as training ground for something better. (MacMurry & Beck, cloth, $22)
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