SUSAN STRAIGHT’S NEWEST NOVEL, Between Heaven and Here, contains sex and murder and vengeance, but it is her examination of familial love, the obligation and calling to care for your own, not only in life but through the passage beyond, that pulled me through the pages. Early in the novel, the Picard family, a Creole clan transplanted from the bayous of Louisiana to Rio Seco, California, finds their stunning daughter, Glorette, murdered in an alley; each relative must come to terms with her death. Cursed first by beauty and later by a crack addiction, Glorette’s occupation as a streetwalker, a prostitute, was difficult enough for her relatives to accept. After her death, they face new challenges.
While most murder novels orbit around the age-old theme who dunnit, Straight’s book invokes a more ancient and messy dilemma, what to do with the dead, something American mortuaries keep hidden from our easily spooked eyes. A body needs to be cared for, cleaned and prepared for burial — arms, legs and torso washed, bowels moved, nails painted, eyes closed, lipstick applied — and then kept company so it won’t get lonely in the long night before it is buried or burned, joining for eternity the other deceased.
For the Picard family, care doesn’t stop there. In the small town of Rio Seco, California, “Every brother on the Westside had fallen in love with Glorette, and […] though she’d been on the street for 10 years, […] no one had ever fallen out.” When her longtime admirer Sidney Chabert finds her crumpled in a shopping cart in the alley where she worked, he kidnaps her corpse. “Nobody would care about Glorette,” he reasons. “No cops or technicians. They’d laugh about her clothes, find multiple kinds of semen inside her, make fun of her apartment, pull Ramen from the cupboard, scare the shit out of her son. Well, hell, someone killed a crack addict.” And so Sidney takes her body to Glorette’s cousins. “What the cops gon do but laugh?” he asks them. “What the morgue gon do but cut her up?” Glorette has power over men even after her death; cousins Lafayette and Reynoldo assist Sidney in the crime of body theft. Glorette is taken to Sarrat, away from authorities, to her family’s land — a near mythical orange grove that contains various family houses, the family cemetery, and relatives who’ve seen dead bodies before and know how to care for them. “The only church would be their words,” Glorette’s father, Gustave, reasons when he learns of his daughter’s death. “[We’ll] build a coffin […] and dig the hole in the old cemetery where no one but Sarrat people [come].”
Death, like the rock that “turn[ed] to gray smoke inside [Glorette’s] mouth […] throat, [and] lungs,” isn’t merely physical. Sorrow seeps into the psyches of those coming to terms with the murder; old conversations replay themselves and missed opportunities trigger intense regrets, reigniting lost love. Straight, winner of an Edgar Award, an O’Henry Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Prize, refracts love’s labor like a prism; told from a revolving collection of perspectives not unlike those in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Between Heaven and Here resurrects Glorette, making us feel her spirit, even in her absence.
Memories of Glorette manifest alongside family histories so dam...read more