Martha Cooley’s first novel, published in 1998, is a brilliant reflection on responsibility and history. Judith and Matthias share childhoods of emotional isolation. Judith was raised by her good-time aunt and uncle, her parents killed when she was an infant. Matthias was raised by his God-fearing mother and emotionally retreating father. Both were only children and both love language, particularly poetry. Their names suggest their big difference: Judith is Jewish, Matthias Christian. The novel begins with a riff on Matthias name-sake, who was chosen to replace Judas. There is no riff on Judith’s name, but Judith is the heroine who goes into the enemy camp, pseudo-seduces Holofernes, and cuts his head off, which she brings with her on her return to the Jewish camp. This is no wilting flower namesake.
Cooley tells us early on that Judith is gone, a victim of suicide. We see Matthias’ isolated life as an archivist for a major university, alone with the relics of the past in his personal and public life. Into this isolation steps Roberta, a Jewish woman physically reminiscent of Judith and, as he learns, emotionally similar, also. Roberta’s parents escaped Nazi Europe, converted to Christianity, and recently revealed the truth to Roberta. Roberta, a poet, cannot cope with her parents’ lie, and she has focused on T.S. Eliot’s decision to leave his wife, incarcerated in a mental institution, and continue his relationship, by letters, with the American, Emily Hale. Hale donated Eliot’s letters to Matthias’ university, his archive, to be closed until 2020. Roberta wants access because she is sure those letters contain the key to Eliot’s hypocrisy, his Anglicanism in the face of his desertion of Vivienne.
Roberta’s request spurs Matthias’ conscience, because he has read the letters. Eliot’s struggles echo his own as he chose to institutionalize Judith.
Now the middle of the novel. We read Judith’s journal, written after she was institutionalized. We do not see her irrational behavior. We see her reasoning, her sorrow, her inability to cope with the losses and the collective and personal guilt, and her sense of betrayal as she watches Matthias pull away from her.
In the novel’s conclusion, Matthias copes with his decision to read the letters and Judith’s journal, meant only for her therapist, and Roberta’s desire to read the Hale letters. Truths emerge like spring flowers and the ending is unexpected and sudden.
Cooley pushes into uncomfortable areas–the nature and extent of love of all types, the limits of collective responsibility and our sense of humanity, and the difference between truth and appearance.
I look forward to seeing what she tackled in her second novel.