Landis’ third novel tells the story of Sarianna, a student in late 1930s Massachusetts with nihilistic leanings and a poetic attachment to the doomed. A job as tutor to the Reverend Jeremy Treat’s son in the Swift River Valley suits her perfectly, because the valley is shortly to be flooded to make way for a new dam. The Trent family centres on the flawed marriage of Jeremy and Una, still pining for her lost first love, and their son, Jimmy, a suspiciously perfect child. There are definite Gothic undertones, though these understated New Englanders lack the emotional vocabulary of the truly Gothic as seen in writings of, for example, Anne Rice or John Berendt.
Alas, if only the same restraint had been shown by the author in his use of language as is shown by his characters in their relationships with one another. Landis acknowledges a debt to Emily Dickinson, Sarianna’s favourite poet, and to Nathaniel Hawthorne. I would be surprised if either would feel flattered by the comparison. Dickinson is notoriously difficult, but she is witty, succinct and moving because her analysis of her own condition and that of women in general is dry and funny and un-self pitying. Sarianna, by contrast, fairly wallows in self pity and vengefulness against those she perceives as having done her wrong – which make this reader, at least, think she deserved everything she got. The power of Nathaniel Hawthorne lies in the plain way he tells tragic stories. Landis, by contrast, is so entangled in the linguistic trappings of melodrama I was frankly unsure what he was trying to say for much of the time.
I really would like to be able to recommend this book. The subject matter is wonderful, and it should be good, but it isn’t and I can’t.