Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
The American poet Hart Crane wrote in a late letter that “[t]here is constantly an inward struggle.” More often than not such is the case with any artist, novelist, poet, sculptor, or wood-worker. Inside the soul, inside the imagination, there’s a stirring, a warring, contradictions of personality, affirmation, enthusiasm, skepticism and even despair, akin to what the prophet calls the war within my members. The hours, the days, the weeks, and even the months and years spent alone in devotional intensity versus, one might say, the ordinary life surrounding the artist might lead anyone to grimace, or drink. In good work, one feels the straining on the part of the artist to create something that expresses or unlocks an intractable spiritual quality, a fine remembrance of the finest creation of all: The Tree of Life.
I mention this as a preface to Gina Holmes’s new novel Driftwood Tides, a novel of Christian fiction, which is to say “faith-based” and thus removed from the more public fictional mainstream, most of which is fond of malady but tends not to suggest that malady is akin to loss of faith, fiction a friend of mine once called “charmingly ugly.”
Ms. Holmes has recited a time when a Sunday school teacher asked the class to open their Bibles. She was without one. Class members offered her theirs. That night she opened this new Bible and a prayer tract fell out. A seed, she says, was planted.
The scene for Driftwood Tides is the eastern shore of North Carolina, the Outer Banks. A young 23-year-old woman, Libby Slater, is about to become married, but in a turn of events learns that she’s been adopted. The novel’s action turns from the marriage, which is put on hold, as Libby begins looking for her birth mother. She learns that the mother she’s been seeking, Adele, has been dead for five years. She meets Holton Creary, the artist-husband, who blames himself for Adele’s automobile accident death, has drifted into seclusion, and has crawled into a bottle of gin.
There’s an interesting controlling metaphor to the story. Horton is a “driftwood” artist, fashioning tables and bits and pieces of sculpture from what can be gathered by combing the eastern shore beaches. He’s helped by Tess who’s devoted to him. The metaphor is the “driftwood” itself, flotsam that floats ashore on the tides.
What once must have been a living tree is now debris, partially decomposed, at times a nuisance. Erosion and tidal wave action usually make it difficult to determine the origin or species.
There’s an aesthetic point to be made here: On closer examination, driftwood flotsam is not without “embodiment.”
Artist Heather Jansch, for example, takes natural weathered driftwood and assembles the pieces into remarkable equine sculpture. The pieces are dramatic.
What we glean from the driftwood and the tides is a metaphor for life itself. We collect bits and pieces given to us as free gifts from the tides and are obliged to shape something from those pieces.
It’s important, though, to remember that what is sometimes washed ashore is unexpected. For Holton, what was washed ashore was the death of his wife Adele; for Libby it’s the discovery that she is an illegitimate daughter given up for adoption. The truth we often hold about ourselves is often turned upside down when something new is washed up on the shores of our lives, when we collect more pieces of driftwood brought to us on the outer banks of our lives by the eternal and restless tides.
I mention this controlling metaphor because it’s what “prizes” this novel. It’s an aesthetic matter, of course, and the aesthetic argument is that the faithful imagination is continually at work, gathering the washed ashore flotsam, assembling the pieces, filling up the fissures such that grace might pass through. If the imagination is stopped from pouring itself out, well, there’s a void and such a void is quasi-hell on earth.
That’s a good description for Holton’s life after Adele’s death, and it’s the world Libby wanders into while forming a friendship with Tess. Holton is angry and stewing and has departed from his “everyman” faith-walk. He’s incredibly annoying and judgmentally petty, and either self-destructive on one hand or nihilistically suicidal on the other.
But this is a Christian book in the course of which characters learn the truth about themselves when life changes in an instant. Tess, for example, remains steadfast in this story of human foibles.
Her own artistic abilities blossom out of the turmoil, sea shells collected along the same eastern shore, bits and pieces gathered and then majestically shaped into pleasing mosaics, relishing hope for tomorrow.
One realistically must believe that human existence is a fragile thing and that one exposed to danger must learn daily to love with trembling. There’s the movement of the body and the movement of the soul. The body can deteriorate and the soul can fall into the void of empty spaces.
But as Holton learns, suffering can lead to and inspire an equal degree of joy. Out of the dark night of the soul, the imagination can begin the sacramental work of gathering what’s been washed up on the shores of our lives and, with the unmixed alloy of grace, recreate that artistic masterpiece, God’s Tree of Life.
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