Still, it's much too narrow a view of Fitzgerald's books to see them only through the transformations she affords to underappreciated females. Her true topic is the unknown itself: the hidden depths of character that events reveal, the overlooked features of a situation that change one's entire reading of it, the concealed motives, hundred-year storms, lurking diseases and hurtling atoms that all have a bearing on a storyteller's prime preoccupation: what happens next. Along with those explicable if not always discoverable forces, she also considers grace, God and ghosts. "We think we know the laws that govern our existence," writes Fritz the poet in The Blue Flower. "We get glimpses, perhaps only once or twice in a lifetime, of a totally different system at work behind them."
Fitzgerald's consciousness of these universal variables gives her novels their peculiar rhythm. They begin at a point not altogether promising - at a community meeting of boat owners, say, or on a bicycle in the rain. Their stories unfold not so much in a linear fashion but outward, with the seamless intricacy of origami, to include present and past, ancillary characters, events further afield, and then, at a point not altogether conclusive, they stop with an abruptness worthy of Fate cutting the skein of life with an arbitrary snip of her fine-honed scissors.
That awareness of uncertainty also accounts for Fitzgerald's scrupulous specificity of time and place. (Her background in journalism may contribute.) The passion is most obvious in those novels set in a frankly distant past, but the particular events of The Bookshop utterly depend on the year being 1959 and the place a sea-stranded Sussex village. When so much that needs knowing remains unaccountable, the small concrete details of how publishers' returns are handled or where the water runs in winter become almost lustrous in their determinacy.
It is, perhaps, a view that comes with age: an increased respect for the unknown and its power to transfigure, along with an enhanced appreciation of the things that stay still long enough to savor. The past, for instance, and small physical realities: a silk embroidered bookmark, the sound of a barge lifted on the tide - even the terrible ones, like flames. But perspective alone cannot account for Fitzgerald's dexterity in finding common ground between past and present or between serenity and terror. Rather, hers is the juggler's greatest art. She convinces us, again and again, that the world's one true moment of perfect balance comes only when everything's up in the air.
Ariel Swartley writes from Los Angeles about literary and popular culture.