Given a chance at immortality, would you take it? Twin Cities author Jacqueline Holland threads the question throughout her debut novel, "The God of Endings." Her protagonist, Collette LeSange, is the headmistress of an elite fine arts school in rural New York. LeSange is also a vampire whose resentment over her involuntary immortality influences her human relationships.
The novel opens in the 1830s. Ten-year-old Collette — then known as Anna — lives with her widowed father, a gravestone carver, and her older brother. Tuberculosis has carried off many of their neighbors, and the pestilence has provoked a range of superstitious remedies among the villagers. Anna's entire family succumbs to consumption, and she is whisked to safety by her vampire grandfather. Unable to prevent her death, he bites her, and she wakes up to be told that she will reach the full bloom of young adulthood but will never start to decay.
Thus begins a history-rich fantastical journey through Europe and America in which Collette assumes various identities. Witness to the myriad ways that human beliefs and superstitions result in mass death and horrors, she sees little value in living forever. Despite that, she is terrified by the possibility of her own death and flees from her own "god of endings."
In 1984, she has returned to her original New York village as the sophisticated, French-speaking LeSange, whose school attracts upwardly mobile striving parents seeking top-notch educations for their progeny. It is in these modern parts of the novel where Anna/Collette's cultural displacement is thrown into sharp relief by Holland's terrific evocation of her character's inability to read modern situations.
Holland plays with cultural misreading throughout the book, including the American parents' assumption that Collette's French identity grants her a certain class-based sophistication. And Collette's playacting of such a role becomes a source of tension throughout the book. Readers are immersed in the headmistress' fear that she will be exposed and driven away from yet another place she has tried to call home.
Suffusing her ambivalence with her immortality is her fear of cursing someone else with it. Thus she subsists on the blood of animals, a solution that becomes increasingly unworkable as her hunger increases. Collette becomes entwined in the lives of her students through circumstances that take her into their homes, where domestic scenes reveal dark secrets glossed over by superficial markers of worldly success. In showing the ways that many of us perform public selves not at all reflective of our personal natures, Holland challenges the ways that we tell stories about ourselves.
In doing so, she has infused the vampire novel with new blood. "The God of Endings" becomes a meditation on the ways that eternal life requires a constant reckoning with the sins of the mortal.
Lorraine Berry is a writer in Oregon.
God of Endings
By: Jacqueline Holland.
Publisher: Flatiron Books, 480 pages, $29.99.
Event: In conversation with Andrew Elfenbein, 7 p.m., March 7, Magers & Quinn, Mpls.