OVER THE LAST FEW years, the poet and novelist Terese Svoboda has dedicated herself to the subtle upending of literary expectations. Her 2010 novel Pirate Talk or Mermalade seemed at first to be something of a romp, a nautical tale involving pirates, sea battles, and journeys to distant polar landscapes. What emerged instead was something much darker, the novel's dialogue-only approach paving the way for a meditation on the unknowability of others. We're introduced to brothers who turn out to be something besides brothers; seemingly solid relationships are dispelled with a handful of words; and one of the few tender scenes of a family dining at home gives way to a vivid verbal description of a hanging.
Bohemian Girl, Svoboda's latest novel, seems at first glance to fall into one of two distinct categories. In the most basic sense, the book is a picaresque: one character's journey translated into a series of encounters with disparate individuals. But it also resembles, for lack of a better phrase, the novel as response. (Is there a proper term for the literary equivalent of the answer song: the likes of Wide Sargasso Sea and Jack Maggs?) Svoboda borrows her title from Willa Cather, and another Cather quote serves as one of Bohemian Girl's epigraphs. Yet in the end, the novel transcends both categories. As in Mermalade, Svoboda seems less concerned with falling into a particular literary tradition than finding memorable images around the fringes of several. Bohemian Girl continues her meditation on mysteries, strange fixations, and collapsing families.
Here, the setting is Nebraska, opening near the start of the Civil War. Our narrator, we'll come to learn, is called Harriet — though that isn't her real name. In one of many nods to Svoboda's preferred themes, Harriet keeps her true name close to herself, never reaching the point of comfortable revelation. The daughter of a Bohemian father and a French mother, Harriet's voice initially makes use of a fractured syntax, of patterns that loop back on themselves. And it's in this roundabout style that her opening sentence establishes Bohemian Girl's themes of family, necessity, and casual betrayal: "Pa lost me on a bet he could not break, nor would, having other daughters to do for, and other debt besides."
Harriet is to be held for four years by a solitary man, referred to only as "The Indian." The Indian is the novel's most obsessive character, fixated on the mounds built by the Hopewell culture centuries before, and striving to replicate its feats. Eventually, Harriet escapes; seeking her lost father, she has a series of encounters with fugitives and outcasts, the Civil War to the east serving as a constant and fearsome presence. In the novel's second half, she settles uneasily into life in a small town, and the book's picaresque mood ebbs away in favor of meditations on family, community, and identity.
Harriet is a cagey narrator, revealing certain things in confessional detail and keeping others hidden. This, in some ways, mirrors her own progression from captive to fugitive to furtive member of a community. As she grows older, her use of language evolves toward a more assured arrangement of words. With a light touch, and in unexpected ways, Svoboda evokes Harriet's growing confidence with the English language. Later in the ...read more