A Gate at the Stairs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 December, 2009, 12:00am

A Gate at the Stairs
by Lorrie Moore
Faber and Faber HK$242

In Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, set in 2002, Tassie Keltjin is a rural girl attending college in the fictional Midwestern town of Troy. She finds herself babysitting for Sarah and Edward, mysterious white, liberal East Coast transplants who are in the process of adopting a bi-racial daughter. As Tassie grows to love the toddler Mary-Emma, and falls in love with a brown-skinned young man, she experiences the racial suspicions and cloudy reformation of American identity post-September 11.

Sarah's confession to Tassie of her and Edward's past life unleashes a series of increasingly miserable events. With this turn, Moore upends Tassie's involvement with her babysitting family unexpectedly, but it is not as jarring as what happens in Tassie's own life. There is the boyfriend who isn't the Brazilian exchange student he claims to be and the sweet but unmotivated younger brother who is deployed to Afghanistan soon after joining the army.

The author shows how American racial history and the war on terror play out in her frequent setting, the Midwest, but her attempts here are hit and miss. Sarah and Edward's weekly at-home meetings of parents with 'children of colour' provide some of the novel's most stinging notes of Moore's trademark mordancy. But brother Robert's war-time fate, and the possible terrorist connections of boyfriend Reynaldo, however well written, seem like circumstances clumsily applied for their relevance to the time.

This is the author's first new work in a decade, and first novel in 15 years. Moore populates her fiction with anxious other women and oblivious lovers, babies with cancers and their nameless parents. Her characters are complex people with complexes; but sometimes the quips and dreamy thoughts feel so studied that Moore's stories, characterised by their bite and dark humour, are enslaved by the wordplay as it veers from clever to overly punning.

Tassie, 20, precocious and na?ve, over-projecting her confidence, is another of Moore's tribe, as is Sarah, the woman she admires and to some degree fears. Moore gives the two of them lines such as Sarah's 'The family that sleighs together stays together,' (later revealed to have a much graver meaning).

What Moore does inarguably well is convey the supernatural pull of adoptive love, whether adoption in the legal sense or the natural bonding of strangers. And the best example here is not that of Sarah's or even Tassie's for Mary-Emma, but features in an episode early in the novel: first visiting the baby as she is cared for by her foster family, we are introduced to the family's teenaged daughter, whose distress at losing 'this faux motherhood [of baby Mary] ... about to have her heart broken in a new and different way for teenagers' we only fully and painfully realise when Tassie finds herself in a similar situation.