Sunday, September 13, 2009

Island of the Lost Girls: Lyrically Lost

Childhood is typically filled with stories; among them are adventure tales from books, family histories adults pass down to children, and fantasy stories children make up themselves. Each of these stories serves a different purpose; stories from books fuel the imagination and spirit, family stories passed down connect the child to those who came before, and stories children make up themselves provide an outlet for individual expression. The ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS by Jennifer McMahon intertwines these three types of stories, playing the present against the past, in order to bring a series of events full circle.
The defining plotline of the story, which is told through a series of flashbacks which eventually fold into the present, is the main character’s, Rhonda, discovery of the abuse of her childhood friend, Lizzy, and the cause and perpetrators of the unsolved murder of Daniel, Lizzy’s abuser. The supporting plotline is the kidnapping of a very young girl which Rhonda witnesses. Although the resolution of the novels connects the two plotlines; the story events alone are not intended to give the book its full impact.

The significance of the book comes from the reader’s interpretation of and reflection on story events rather than from observing character growth. While it is evident that as a result of the story events, Rhonda has answers to questions that lingered from her childhood, she changes little from the beginning to the end; there is modest, if any, “actualization of the potential that exists in character and situation.” (p185, Art of Fiction by John Gardner). For example, one event that would have been highly likely to produce character transformation was the loss of Rhonda’s virginity. When Rhonda makes love for the first time, there is no real change in her; she does not reflect on how the experience has impacted her as a person or, more specifically, as a woman. Later, when she learns that the man she made love to accidentally killed the little girl he was paid money to kidnap, she does not experience any significant sense of regret, loss, or confusion.

Although Rhonda does suffer self-imposed guilt for not interrupting the kidnapping when she observed it, she did not suffer any consequence that increased as story events unfolded. Whether the lost girl is found or not has no real, long-lasting, consequence to Rhonda. Furthermore, none of her loved ones are threatened by the kidnapping of the girl either. The same holds true for the events revealed from the past. The discoveries she makes, learning that her father had been previously married to a family friend, for example, involve events that occurred to others.

These observations are not given to imply that LOST is lacking, but to indicate the actualization of character is not the goal of the novel. In fact, having the character remain fundamentally static strengthens the book’s intent; it encourages, requires, the reader to respond emotionally. Consider if the novel had been written differently and Rhonda’s emotional reactions were the focus. If that were the case, then the emotional impact would have been diluted as the reader would have been experiencing them through Rhonda rather than directly.

LOST is what John Gardner refers to as a “lyrical novel”, one in which “What carries the reader forward is not plot,,,but some form of rhythmic repetition: a key…cluster of images (and) group of events, to which the writer returns repeatedly, then leaves for material that increasingly deepens and redefines the meaning of the events.” (p185, Art) Gardener observes that, “Such a story can be interesting, even brilliant, but it can never achieve the power of an energeic action because the control of action is intellectual, it does not rise out of the essence of things…It does not capture process.” (p166, Art) While I believe it is up to the reader to determine whether or not LOST compares positively to energeic fiction, I would agree that LOST does not capture process. It defers to the impact of outcome; it reveals and invites examination. The outcomes of the characters’ discoveries are the responsibility of the reader to determine. To accomplish this, McMahon employs the use of allusionary themes.

As the title, and backstory involving Rhonda, Lizzy, and other characters performing a play of Peter Pan, suggests, LOST relies heavily on an understanding and consideration of the story Peter Pan for overall impact. LOST is not simply about how a woman learns of the sexual abuse of a childhood friend; it is an examination of the effect of the premature loss of childhood, how as one learns the truth of the world, one loses innocence, and when that innocence is pulled away too soon a person will continue to feel that loss as an adult. This theme is echoed in the use of allusions and direct references to the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Rhonda, Lizzy, and their childhood friend Peter, are each cast into a world beyond logic and reason, a world where they do not belong. Additionally, each of these characters have experiences with a white rabbit that cause them to wonder if they are in fact the same person they were just before the rabbit crossed their path.

By tucking the past into the present, McMahon creates a lyrical novel that does more than simply tell a story of one girl’s lost childhood. ISLAND OF LOST GIRLS artfully steers away from victim exploitation as it explores the tricky territories of sexual childhood abuse and the burden of secrets between friends and family. As a result of careful crafting, the reader is not weighted down by sentiment but instead lifted up with understanding and appreciation for the importance of childhood.

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