Frederick Beuchner wrote, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” This could be the motto for the heroine of Marly Youmans’s new novel, which follows the story of Charis, a young woman whose life is riddled with unimaginable loss and undeniable beauty. Set in Puritan New England, it’s a tale that will interest not just history buffs but anyone who knows the world to be a beautiful, terrible place stitched through with grace.
This is a book that does not shy away from theodicy, the reconciling of our understanding of God’s goodness with the fact of evil, suffering, and chaos. In our skeptical modern world, narratives wrestling with this theme usually exist between the poles of belief and agnosticism; not so with Charis. As she seeks to make sense of her world, her first impulse is not to wonder if God exists but to look for signs of God and to wonder how God regards this world so full of peril. In a manner reminiscent of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, Charis circles around and around the problem of evil, seeking not to resolve but to confront it. With her, the reader meets horror and goodness in equal measure: massacres, witch-hunts, suicide, and freak accidents alongside the generosity of strangers, the mystery of alchemy, the comfort of scripture, the arresting beauty of nature, and the miracle of birth.
This reflects the era in which the story takes place, when people simply assumed that spiritual forces both benevolent and malevolent animated the cosmos. The most successful aspect of the book is its ability to conjure this premodern and enchanted way of encountering the world, where babies born on the Sabbath are cursed and moose are near-mythic creatures. Reading historical fiction can sometimes feel like a one-sided game of Trivial Pursuit, in which the author inflicts upon you every fact he or she ever learned about the time period. Not so with this book. Charis’ world is one in which I thoroughly believed, full of people I couldn’t help but care about. The archaic language felt natural, and its premodern mindset, full of assumptions alien to the modern experience, was revitalizing to inhabit.
Though masterfully researched and written with elegance and sensitivity, the narrative elements of the book fall short. Many exciting things happen, but they lack a sense of congruity, tension, or completion. At least that was the book’s impression on me; I was never quite sure why I ought to keep reading, or what I was waiting for. Perhaps this narrative ambiguity is a feature of the novel, emblematic of Charis’ own faltering attempts to make sense of the beauty and pain she has experienced. Perhaps we are not meant to be able to stitch the meaning of experiences together like one of Goody Holt’s fine frocks, but must trust the true alchemical magic to which the heroine’s name attests – a grace capable of transfiguring pain into beauty.