Sleepless in New England

Annie DeWitt’s linguistic, motherful beauty, White Nights in Split Town City

Traditionally, white nights are those where you don’t go to sleep. White nights are also those where it never gets truly, 100% dark. While I can’t be sure which Annie DeWitt is referring to in her novel, White Nights in Split Town City, I presume it is physically the former though perhaps metaphorically the latter as well.

The sleepless nights are Jean’s, the novel’s narrator and main character, though both her name and the fact that she’s not sleeping well are mentioned rarely. What Annie DeWitt does best in this book is center you in each moment, which doesn’t automatically translate to stringing those moments together. It’s not a bad thing — it keeps the mystery of the book alive, and allows it to focus on the language and the eerie events, some of which aren’t fully described, rather hinted in such a way that you know precisely what’s going on.

Jean is a special creature, with an overbright brain that she doesn’t necessarily have an outlet for in her New England town.

The novel’s plot centers around Jean’s summer in 1990, a summer that I doubt she will ever be able to forget. She experiences a lot of “firsts” and becomes aware of things she’s never been truly aware of before. One of the most remarkable is her understanding of her parents’ sexuality towards one another, which isn’t something most adult children, let alone thirteen-year-olds, are able to dwell on without flinching. But Jean is a special creature, with an overbright brain that she doesn’t necessarily have an outlet for in her New England town, on her unpaved road, in her school that doesn’t seem to have anything remarkable to say for itself.

During this summer too, Jean’s mother leaves, leaving Jean and her little sister alone and needing to be babysat by various other women, from a teenaged “bleeder” to a series of older women whose lifestyles are as distinct as the way they speak. For a time, Jean woos a boy around her own age, an apparent orphan who’s part of a band of brothers — the Steelhead brothers — who’re looked down on by the town as motherless ruffians. She is also wooed by an old man who lives across the street from her, Otto Houser, whose advances may seem either subtle and innocent or leering and dangerous, depending on how you read his scenes (until a particularly crucial moment during which any doubts you may have one way or the other disappear, though I won’t tell you what happens).

More than a novel of plot, however, this is an atmospheric book, one that reads somehow like a Southern novel though it is set in New England. And yet, having been upstate NY recently, in a relatively rural area, I find I now understand this — people there speak the way we imagine stereotypical southerners do. There is a lilt and twang to their speech and a friendliness that is also calculating and a harshness that is loving. There’s a way of noticing the weather and looking around in a way that sees things city dwellers don’t. It’s this that DeWitt manages to capture so intensely in her scenes and in her narrator’s voice and the way she captures little turns of phrases so remarkably:

The streets skirting the radius of town were decorated by the types of homes with driveways that ran in a horseshoe and were lined in a reception of old town cars. Pillared porches and tall white fences enclosed trellises of wild roses and pots of imported tomatoes. Here decadence shifted in perennial storm. In winter, when the flowers and the tomatoes were under snow, images of horses in gingham blankets speckled the landscape…

Decadence shifting; images speckling a landscape — this is the language that makes this novel pop in moments that are unexpected. In quiet moments, she’ll bring forth a profound statement, like how Margaret, Jean’s mother’s friend, said that the “lawyer was suffering what every man faces after the death of his wife: the prospect of many sleepless nights bookended by two days of solitude” or Jean herself observing, “There was a distance to her silence that I appreciated.”

Jean’s mother is hard to pin down, which is part of what makes her character — who is not there for much of the book, but who crops up in memories — so wonderful. She befriends the one Englishwoman in town, the aforementioned Margaret, and the two women bond over literature and art. They’re part of a group of women whom Jean’s father mock-lovingly calls The Separatists. Margaret embodies much of what Jean’s mother seems t0 wish she could be, even though she herself seems to embody it far more than Margaret herself does. But Jean’s mother doesn’t see this, and feels limited by the town that Jean is growing up rather too quickly in. This is something that her mother recognizes, and yet still she seems almost destined to flee, especially after scenes like this, which describes something as simple as wanting to find a place to hang a painting, but which becomes far more complex in Jean’s narration:

The wall had been a focal point of Mother’s recent discomfort. It sat at the far end of the house onto which both the living room and the portico overlooked. The previous owners of the house had been an elderly couple with a fondness for stenciling pastoral scenes onto any stretch of wall that enjoyed some open expanse. To Mother’s mind, the kitchen offered a particularly unforgivable example. The laymen’s handiwork, she felt, was evidence of the house’s age and limited possibility.

Jean’s mother is truly the center of the book in many ways, for it is her absence that is most felt, and her return that is most dramatically dealt with as well. When she returns, she seems smaller to Jean, and yet still all-important: “All I saw was a tiny barefoot woman with a far off scare in her eye. Her chest was thin and hollow. For some reason I felt like crying. I had disappointed her, not because of what I had done but because I was still a child hanging on her belt who hadn’t grown up and out yet.”

Wise for her age in a way that she embraces, Jean epitomizes the idea that other authors are discussing these days too — that teenage girls should be taken seriously, that their sorrows and feelings and expressions are nothing to sneer at. Megan Abbot — whose writing is incredibly different from DeWitt’s, but whose subject matter and themes share something with her — said in a recent interview: “I think women are always trying to figure out their own adolescence. We never stop.” This hits the nail on the head where White Nights in Split Town City is concerned: there is a search for adolescence here from a woman who is both a teenager and a grown-up at the same time, and it is a marvelous, beautiful, and painful journey.

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