FICTION: An elegant exploration of the power of stories, wrapped inside a murder mystery.
Fans of Minnesota Book Award-winning author Norah Labiner’s earlier work — which includes the novels “German for Travelers,” “Miniatures” and “Our Sometime Sister” — will not be surprised to hear that her new novel is interested primarily in investigating the art of storytelling. They may, however, be surprised to find that “Let the Dark Flower Blossom,” in addition to being an elegant and sometimes jarring exploration of the malevolent and destructive power that stories can wield, is for most of its duration a page-turning murder mystery.
As the book opens, we learn that Roman Stone, a literary celebrity who made his mark at age 20 in the early 1980s with a novel called “Babylon Must Fall,” is dead — stabbed in his chair by an unknown intruder. The wealthy and charismatic Stone, a “relentlessly educated, pretentious bastard,” is the kind of man who was “born to be murdered.” Nevertheless, he had his admirers, literary sycophants and, in the author Sheldon Schell, his old friend from college now moving through an isolated life on an island in Lake Superior, he has someone motivated to tell the story of his life, and murder. For Sheldon, Roman Stone was “born to be explicated.”
“This is not a novel,” Sheldon writes of his own book, but “a memoir by being a compendium of memories.” “Let the Dark Flower Blossom” is also an investigation into memory itself, and at the heart of this book are a number of long-buried events, the exhumation and telling of which exert an incantatory control over the characters themselves. But the further into the story we go, the darker things get, and the less we are sure, as readers, that either Roman or Sheldon himself is who we’ve been led to believe. Labiner is tricky with the telling of this story, but she is in full control of the way in which she wants her reader to move through the book. There is no straight line through this novel, which is held together by image, language, and classical and literary reference, but its pleasures are many. It’s deeply unsettling, and I mean that as praise.
“A story is a labyrinth, and all paths lead to the monster. Who is the monster? Is it the storyteller? A good storyteller must be a monster,” a character says late in the book. And as this book goes on, as events pile up and the action becomes more obscured, as we become less sure of the past, and as the fractured language of telling begins to more formally resemble poetry than prose, we slowly begin to understand what we’ve perhaps known all along: This book isn’t a whodunit; it’s a who-gets-to-tell-it. Roman Stone held our attention just long enough for Sheldon Schell to reclaim his own story, and reveal himself, horribly, on the page. The title of this book is a reference to Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter,” but as we close this book, it’s Sheldon’s black flower — his story, one that has no beginning and no end — that is left to blossom darkly within us.
Ethan Rutherford is the author of “The Peripatetic Coffin and Other Stories.” He lives in Minneapolis.