The Grave of God’s Daughter, by Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate and Los Angeles resident Brett Ellen Block, is about as finely wrought a work of fiction as one could hope to read. The premise is thoroughly unoriginal, but that hardly matters. Do you care that Yo-Yo Ma didn’t write Dvorák’s Slavonic Dances? I thought not. Sometimes virtuosity is enough. In the case of The Grave of God’s Daughter, it is more than enough. This is perhaps one of the most stylistically perfect books you will ever read.
The story consists of a slice out of a Polish-American girl’s childhood, a few brief weeks that illustrate what it’s like to grow up on the worst street in a Pennsylvania mill town, while the tantalizing plot is punctuated with plenty of murder and intrigue (this is a coming-of-age novel of sorts, but only in the manner of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird). Block’s novel is narrated in a classical, elegantly modulated style. Her writing is so well paced that it sweeps you up and along, not so much through wanting to find out what happens (the mark of a “page turner”) as through the gathering momentum of its careful cadences and the beauty of its motion.
At one point, the young nameless narrator is lying in the cot she shares with her brother, listening for sounds of her mother stirring in the washroom — she’s afraid the hollow, despondent woman is about to commit suicide: “I was . . . afraid that even a brief shift in weight might obscure the noise I awaited. My neck stiffened into a solid, unrelenting cramp and the muscles tingled with pinpricks of pain. It was a strange sensation, like a twinkling of lights under the flesh, and I pictured myself glowing in the dark apartment, as though my skin were made of stars.”
Block’s language makes every moment of the story glow. She has gifted her narrator with a godlike eloquence, and it’s a sound one. The child’s voice is more compelling and believable than the carefully authentic voices in more doggedly realistic novels: “It was as if each of the acute miseries of the world sprang from the dirt on Third and took root there. Living where we did, hearing what we heard, seeing what we saw, we were filled to the brim with the world and it seemed as though we would not be able to hold an ounce more of what life held in store for us.” It’s as if the girl’s soul is telling the story, her voice rising above and beyond not only her years, but the confines of a life. Now that’s fiction.
THE GRAVE OF GOD’S DAUGHTER| By BRETT ELLEN BLOCK | William Morrow | 304 pages | $24 hardcover