Friday, October 9, 2009

Lucy Honig's Waiting for Rescue: A Review

Some writers write engagingly about a single subject, secret codes say. Others—and these include our most versatile—seem able to handle anything with power and panache.

Gloucester resident Lucy Honig, recipient of the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her 1999 collection of stories, The Truly Needy, is among the second group. Whether she is writing about homesteading during the final days of the Nixon administration or picking potatoes in rural Maine, about AIDS in Africa, teaching ESL classes in New York City, or a young Cambodian woman’s escape from an arranged marriage, she is able to place her readers in the red hot center of her narratives.

In her new novel, Waiting for Rescue (Counterpoint, $14.95), her first since the Maine Novel Prize-winning Picking Up, Honig takes on another of the significant issues of our times, the effect of the events of 9/11 on those of us who may not have been personally impacted by that tragedy but who have nevertheless been traumatized by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and their reverberations.

Erika, the protagonist in this compelling novel, teaches writing in the public health department of a major Boston medical school. Her students are health professionals from around the world, “culture-shocked doctors and public officials from countries we call ‘developing,’” as Erika describes them. Her job is to help them articulate, in a language that is often not their own, their approach to research in some of the most pressing health issues of the day—the survival of individuals and families suffering from AIDS in impoverished cultures, the allocation of scarce medical resources in Third World nations, the looming fear of bio-terrorism.

As she struggles to help her students grapple with their research projects, Erika also contends with the interpersonal politics of the department where she teaches—the appointment of a chairperson who is unpopular with the faculty, the rise of incompetent staff, unwelcome changes in her teaching routine. She enters into an uneasy relationship with Ivan, a Russian doctor with whom she works, all the while obsessing over an unthinkable crime committed many years earlier by her former high school biology teacher, who, she learns, has recently been released from prison.

But as Erika’s story unfolds, intercut by her doomed affair with Ivan, the fate of one of her students, Ibrahim, a doctor from Eritrea, who is suffering from cancer, and the ordeal of Faith, a young African girl whose parents have died from AIDS, we discover that Erika is engaged in a deeper existential struggle. She is haunted by the events of 9/11, whose impact on her is brought into shaper focus by her daily struggles with work, her relationship with Ivan and the pain suffered by those around her.

It becomes clear as Honig’s compelling narrative gathers momentum that Erika, like many of us living through the after-effects of 9/11, is suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It emerges in her uncharacteristically hostile behavior toward colleagues, her fixation on the crime of her former teacher and her increasingly disturbing dreams of disaster. Sadly, her powerfully rendered journey to Ground Zero with Ivan, coupled with memories of having traveled on the subway under the Twin Towers, when she was a young teacher in New York, bring not closure but further anxiety and dread.

The concluding chapter of the novel, in which Erika travels by bus and by foot through a Boston in violent transition, is a tour de force. It is also a nightmarish vision of post 9/11 America. “This is Boston’s march of progress,” Erika thinks, as she collides with homeless veterans, frenetic shoppers and indifferent investment bankers on their cellphones. “These are our times.” And her thoughts underscore the theme of this stunning and deeply-humane novel.

The author will be reading from Waiting for Rescue on Thursday, October 29 at 7 p.m. at the Book Store in downtown Gloucester.

This review first appeared in the September 29, 2009 issue of North Shore Art Throb, founded and edited by Dinah Cardin.