This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Some books are easier to review than others. The difficulty in reviewing some books can be for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I don’t like the book much and have to dig to bring worthwhile observations to the surface (I have no desire to savage a book in a review; life is too short). Sometimes the themes of the book are complex and take a lot of effort to tease out and properly interact with. Sometimes, as with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series, the content of the story hits so close to home I don’t know how to properly separate myself from the book and objectively critique it. So I don’t, because to do so would be to dishonor not only the accomplishment of the author in that particular book but also the role of fiction in our lives. Such is the case with Van Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God.
The book tells the story of an Evangelical Christian family–the Quanbecks–in Idaho in 1970, focusing on the middle daughter, Jory, who turns fourteen during the story. Her sister, Grace (17), has just returned from a mission trip to Mexico, pregnant with a baby she claims is from God himself. Her mother struggles with severe depression and her father, a Harvard-educated astronomy professor at a small Christian college, tries to keep the family from falling apart. They are devout in their conservative Christian faith, and Grace has long been the most fervent of them all. Her pregnancy and convoluted explanation for it are a hand grenade to their familial happiness.
But was the family ever really happy? As we follow Jory through the months that follow Grace’s announcement, through her father’s well-intentioned but hurtful attempts to keep the family from embarrassment and harm, through the risky new relationships Jory develops as she tries to cope with responsibilities well beyond her maturity level, we understand quickly how broken the family was from the very beginning. The demands of fundamentalism cause a family’s roots and trunks to twist and contort. This is a thing I know something about.
I’ve struggled with what to write in this review, and how, because as I said earlier, it hits so close to home (an especially apt metaphor in this context). I recognize so much of the world Brelinski gives us in The Girl Who Slept with God. The family she offers us in this novel–one very similar to her own–is in many ways the one I grew up with, the one I still struggle to understand. My own was in some ways more normal and in some ways weirder than the Quanbecks, but I recognize these people. The father who retreats to the world of science because he’s found no intimacy in the world of people, though he either doesn’t recognize or doesn’t acknowledge this. The mother who struggles with emotional and mental health issues and the strictures of Evangelical domesticity but, again, doesn’t acknowledge the sources of the problem. The children who don’t know how to act in the company of outsiders, who are alternately terrified and fascinated by the secular world. The walls of privacy around the family’s strange home life. The father who is a lord in his own kingdom, wise because he is the father and a father is wise. At one point Jory explains that their family is weird even in the context of their conservative church. I sighed when I read this. How many of these stories are out there? I’ve started the novel I hope tells mine, though I have no idea how to finish it while my parents are still living. Brelinski’s have been gone for a few years now.
Brelinski’s handling of the story is patient, providing a well-paced narrative that lingers in places to develop its characters and moves quickly when emotion calls for it. Characters are well-developed, though I recognized the family members so immediately I’m not sure I would have noticed if Brelinski had slipped here. She did not, I believe, since the unfamiliar supporting cast is also developed nicely. The breathless final movement of the book is devastating in both is inevitability and its shock, and gives us no chance to rest. Our only reprieve in this final seventy-five or so pages are moments when the hurt is quiet rather than loud.
“In the silence, Jory thought she could hear a moth’s wings battening against the searing heat of the streetlight bulb. It would be like flying into the sun, she thought. Like turning your face into the brightest, whitest, most brilliant light. Like deliberately diving into a beautiful, self-obliterating pool of fire.
Would that be such a terrible and foolish trade: a moment’s pure and incandescent joy in exchange for an eternity of darkest nothingness? She closed her eyes tight and tighter, and for almost a second allowed herself to imagine that she still knew how to pray.” – page 350
I finished The Girl Who Slept with God around midnight this past Sunday evening, and I sat staring at the wall when it was over. My wife had already gone to bed. My second-grade daughter had woken from a bad dream and come downstairs some hours before; she’d been asleep against my arm for most of this final section of the book, her breaths plumbing deep into her lungs. What had terrified her upstairs in the lonely darkness couldn’t reach her beside me in this chair. I closed my eyes and held her tightly until it was time for us both to go upstairs to bed. I have no idea how to write effectively about the bizarre childhood I lived. I have no idea if my daughter will ever write about hers. Val Brelinski found a way to write about her own, and the result is powerful, heartbreaking, and graceful. The Girl Who Slept with God is not to be missed.