Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Cloud of Unknowing, by Thomas H. Cook

The Cloud of Unknowing was a book written in the 14th century, a "spiritual guide". It urges a young monk not to search for knowledge about God but to know God through love (I simplify, of course). There is nothing in this book, the one by Thomas Cook, that makes direct reference to the earlier work, except the way of knowing, of getting through that cloud, getting there through love.

We begin in the office of Detective Petrie. We begin with confusion: one death, two, three, four? And a promise to tell the whole story. This chapter is written in the second person, as if an unseen person is telling your story for you. The "you" in this case is David Sears.

The office conversation - or interrogation if you want to call it that - is intertwined with the story told in the first person by David Sears. The short detective chapters simply keep us in place, bring us back to the present.

Through this means Cook leads us gradually into the family of David, his sister Diana, and their father. He takes us through the drowning death of Diana's son Nathan, a child who was full of fear and who seemed to have inherited some kind of mental illness. The path then leads back to David's father, whose own struggle with what was diagnosed as "paranoid schizophrenia" escalated in later years.

I use the quotation marks only because my own knowledge of this condition tells me that there are no physical tests for it and there is, further, no proof of genetic descendency, however long such assumptions persist. Nevertheless, we have to assume in this book that, genetic or not, this family is somehow afflicted. That affliction may come as much from the cruel emotional cuts inflicted by David's father as by any kind of real illness.

We learn that Diana is not "getting over" her son's death. More, we learn that she is suspicious of the means of his death, yet her avenues of investigation defy normal categories. Instead of looking for physical or even circumstantial evidence, she looks backward thousands of years to ancient deaths, ancient myths, as well as more current stories. She tries to draw in her brother, his daughter, others.

Yet oddly nothing is every really overt. Nowhere do we have the direct conversation where people learn from each other. More, we see accusations and assumptions and an unwillingness to move in different directions. And thus I found myself at times frustrated, wondering why David does not consider other options, why Diana is not more specific. Yet isn't it often true that family members do not hear each other?

In the end we do have deaths, each one questionable - what made it happen? We don't have all the answers. We do have siblings torn by deaths but with a true loyalty to each other that survives the worst kinds of visions. Certainly this is less about the underlying mystery than it is about David and Diana and the bonds of childhood.

And with this book I met my goal for 2008: to read 20 books from the 2007 notable books lists.


J and Z said...
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Wendy said...

J And Z: I am sending you an invitation to join the blog (and deleting your comment in order to protect your email address from spammers!). Once you join the blog, you are free to cross post your reviews here and post your list of what you are reading for the challenge. You are welcome to include a link to your blog on each of your reviews if you wish!