In a Perfect World

By Laura Kasischke. Published in 2009.

Laura Kasischke is first and foremost an award-winning poet, and you can feel that in her prose. Unlike most novelists, she seems less interested in dialogue or plot or even character than in imagery and mood. Her evocative language wraps its tendrils around you, drawing you into its own dark dreaminess. You keep reading not because you’re desperate to learn what happens next (in fact, not much happens at all) but because the language has cast a spell you can’t bear to break.

That eerie quality is particularly well suited for In a Perfect World, Kasischke’s seventh novel, which draws unabashedly on fairy tales, lingering on such redolent items as a lost shoe, a white goose, a lonely house in the woods; the residue of magic in the prose seems only appropriate. But not all fairy tales involve princesses and starry happily-ever-afters. Kasischke’s fairy tale allusions knit together with oblique references to the medieval bubonic plague and contemporary fears about epidemics and economic instability. The result is a hushed, endearingly domestic post-apocalyptic tale with an unexpected love story, not romantic but maternal, the mythical evil stepmother redeemed.

The nonevil stepmother here is Jiselle, a naïve young woman who falls in love with Mark, a handsome, charming widower with three children. They marry, and while Mark continues to work as an airline pilot, Jiselle quits her job to stay home with Camilla, Sara, and Sam. Of the three, only Sam, the youngest, welcomes Jiselle. His sisters, particular Sara, resent their new stepmother and go out of their way to hurt her. To make matters more difficult, Mark is rarely home, and outbreaks of Phoenix flu—a horrific, incurable disease—continue to crop up around the country.

Quietly, disquietly, Kasischke builds considerable foreboding—about the dangers of Mark’s constant international travel, about the flu, about its destabilizing effects on the economy. She tends to create scenes without much action but with a few details that linger suggestively, hanging like aching, unresolved leading tones. Together, those details auger great ill, so one of the more interesting, insightful things about the book is how long the characters will themselves to ignore the foreboding. They persist in following their usual routines, and depending on how you look at, that persistence is brave and foolish, admirable and reprehensible—human.

For Jiselle and the children are not heroes. They don’t find a cure or fight zombies or save the day. They’re the extras in the big disaster movie, living ordinary lives in the background. But Kasischke finds the drama and resonance in their quiet lives; her poetic prose gives them dignity, and the hints of fairy tale touch on something elemental, making the book, in some places, feel almost like a delicate allegory about love and commitment.

In a Perfect World haunts me. I can still see the violets peeking out from beneath the fallen leaves, the girl cutting away her black-dyed hair, the goose waiting to be slaughtered. Together all the images and snapshots, the brief conversations and unspoken thoughts, create a beautiful mosaic of a terrible time. Unsettling yet tentatively hopeful and deeply humane, the novel opens the door to the house in the woods and finds not a witch or a princess but a fragile, patched-together family.

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Not that anyone who reads this blog cares, but I probably should acknowledge that, although I have never met Laura Kasischke (she couldn’t pick me out of a lineup), I was slightly involved in the production of In a Perfect World. That said, in my time in managing editorial, I’ve worked on dozens—hundreds—of different books. This is the only time I’ve written about one of them here on my blog, and frankly, I don’t intend to make a habit of it.

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