Monday, December 17, 2012

YA For A Day: The Brilliance of Beth Kephart

(I have been extremely scarce from the blogging world lately, and if you want to know the reason why you can read about it over on Middle Grade Mafioso.)

Back? Okay, let's move on to my review of a couple of novels by a writer whom I whole-heartedly admire. I have written before about Beth Kephart, and about how her memoir about her son's early years, A Slant of Sun, touched me so deeply when I read it. I was thrilled to learn that Beth is now writing YA fiction and in the last few months I have been reveling in her beautiful stories.

Brief descriptions of Beth's two most recent novels could be: "Sophie, a teen stolen in infancy, comes to learn the truth about the woman whom she thinks is her mother" (YOU ARE MY ONLY); and "Kenzie, a pregnant teen who is sent to Spain by her controlling mother, learns lessons about love and the meaning of home." (SMALL DAMAGES) But both descriptions sound so reductive. Each of these novels creates a unique world of its own, and they do so through a singular and powerful use of language and description.

The best analogy I can come up with about Beth's writing is that it is like swirling dreamily in a pool of the most beautiful music. Her sentences, especially her verbs, give me little heart-tugs when I read them. Here's the beginning of SMALL DAMAGES:
"The streets of Seville are the size of sidewalks, and there are alleys leaking off from the streets. In the back of the cab, where I sit by myself, I watch the past rushing by. I roll the smeary window down, stick out my arm. I run one finger against the crumble-down of walls. Touch them for you: Hello, Seville."
"Leaking off" is such a perfect description. Later, the narrator talks of a nun "blackbirding by." There are fantastic sentences throughout the book; turning to a page at random I find "mountains in the distance seem hacked off by sun," while on another page "the bed aches up beneath her."

But it is not all gorgeous language. Kephart's stories are full of secrets and hurts, of small and sometimes painful declarations of love, and of what it means to expose one's heart to the joys and sorrows of the world.

They also feel like delicately constructed symphonies. In YOU ARE MY ONLY, there is the insistent refrain  of blue: the song the mother sings before her daughter is kidnapped is "True, true, the sky is blue," and the novel opens with Sophie telling us it's "a blue-sky sun day." Later, we find the kidnapper's journal, in which the kidnapper writes a couple of times that "the sky was blue, and it was easy," a line which has particular resonance when at a climactic scene (no spoilers here!), Sophie tells us that "the sky is not blue; it is not easy." That tremendous blue chord lingers long after the book is over.

I am in awe of Beth Kephart's mastery of the musicality of language, and haunted (in the best possible way!) by the beauty of these stories. As such, I will drop everything and read whatever story she sees fit to serve us next--and I highly recommend you do too.

This will be my last blog post of 2012. I wish you all a peaceful holiday season, and best wishes for 2013. I will be back in the saddle come January. Au revoir, auf wiedersehen, and For Auld Lang Syne.


  1. This is extraordinary, and I am so grateful, Michael G-G. Yes. You found the blue. The is of blue and the not of blue, and how between them lies the story. Thank you for these exceptional words at the end of this year. Peace to you, and may goodness sweep over your own dreams.

  2. Have a great Christmas and New Year, Michael. Perhaps next year we will see you branch out a little, 'Shakespeare on the ram'?

  3. I couldn't agree more. Beth Kephart is a must-read author for me.

  4. Well, you've just cinched it for me. I know what I'm reading tomorrow. Thanks.


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