Carry the One, by Carol Anshaw, Fig Tree, RRP£7.99, 272 pages
When Nick Kenney is seven or eight years old, his father suddenly cuffs him on the side of the head. As the confused little boy cups his reddening ear, the father says: “That’s for nothing ... Wait until you see what happens when you actually do something.”
Fast-forward to the summer of 1983. After his sister Carmen’s wedding, 19-year-old Nick piles into his girlfriend Olivia’s Dodge along with his other sister Alice, her lover Maude and a small-time folk singer. The partied-out passengers make a cosy tableau but it’s 3am, the headlights aren’t working and everyone in the car is “too tired, too stoned, too goofed-up on sex, a perfect confluence of weak elements that only needed the addition of a stray child to coalesce into tragedy”. That stray child is Casey Redman, and she dies within moments of impact.
Carol Anshaw’s Carry the One chronicles the lives of the wedding party over the next 25 years. Following its success earlier this year in the US, it is now being published in the UK. Anshaw’s fourth novel is a deft study of the life-long bonds of shared guilt and shared trauma, which raises the question of how we can seek atonement without too easily forgiving our own worst deeds.
Olivia, the driver, is the only one publicly held to account. She emerges from jail “a new person who seemed to have been designed in opposition to the stoner who casually got behind the wheel and killed a girl”, and has a cast-iron strategy for living with her past. The others, without the penal structures of punishment and redemption, are sentenced to harbour private remorse. Only the folk singer is spared this fate: Anshaw uses him as a moral counterpoint, as he swiftly exorcises his demons through art, and a song based on the accident becomes his first big hit.
Nick endeavours to follow Olivia’s clean-living lead but she becomes yet another of his dependencies: “the one thing he seemed to value more than getting high”. Anshaw relates Nick’s spiral of recovery and relapse with dizzying passages of how it feels to occupy an addict’s space.
Although we witness flashbacks to the Kenneys’ childhood, the novel seems primarily concerned with depicting the effect of slow-drip parental sabotage on adult lives: their mother bestowing “a little kiss of disapproval” on her son; Alice, now a successful artist yet “still bouncing up and down, waiting for her mother to watch her jump off the diving board”. Small wonder that Alice, too, ends up as the passive one in a fear-driven relationship.
Carmen, the sibling who wasn’t in the car that night, bears the scars of the “trenches of childhood” differently. She turns her corrective gaze outwards, her social activism taking on a superhuman earnestness. The clarity of her worldview showcases Anshaw’s wittiest writing: in the context of Carmen’s political conscience, standard dinner-party chatter becomes offensively self-indulgent, and her insights into relationships are by turns painful and hilarious. When her husband asks for a divorce, she realises that “the peaceful atmosphere in the room of their marriage was, for Matt, only a muted backdrop to a large, loudly ticking clock”; as she comes to terms with life as a single mother, “the social road ahead looked like a bleak highway ... gray and lifeless except for mutants popping up here and there”.
Anshaw’s understated, casual tone is made delightful with small details. Vivid images hit home with finishing flourishes: a Hell’s Angels bar smells “like the inside of a very bad shoe, a shoe with a piece of cheese in it”; a painter whose career has slipped from delusions of artistic grandeur to dull commissioned pieces for corporate clients, is “a dancing bear now, a bear in a hat and frilly skirt”.
The “one” carried in the title is the dead child, Casey Redman. Her presence in Alice’s work introduces a supernatural thread, with echoes of Wilde and Poe. However, there is nothing trite here – no ghost, no neat resolution, no romantic epiphany. Anshaw leaves it to the reader to trace the parallels between emotionally neglected childhoods, the deeply protective love of siblings and the choking ties of guilt. Equally, we can simply enjoy Carry the One as an engaging narrative, eloquently told.