Bright Before Us
A mutilated body on a beach sends an elementary school teacher into a tailspin
Reviewed by Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 6, 2011
Bright Before Us
by Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Tin House Books, 288 pp., $14 (paper)
There isn't much time to know who narrator and elementary schoolteacher Francis Mason is at rest. Five pages in, during a class trip, he discovers a mutilated body on the beach of the San Francisco Bay, a catalytic trauma that sends present-day Francis tailspinning into a re-reckoning of his past. In alternating chapters, debut novelist Kate Arnold-Ratliff chronicles Francis' numbed shock and rapid meltdown (he zombies through the workday then picks fights with his pregnant wife, Greta, at night) alongside his recounting of one week in his early twenties, when he and his childhood friend Nora tumbled into a relationship.
Arnold-Ratliff has an unhurried way of leaking information, taking her time to fill the considerable blanks in our understanding of what happened then and now. The book seems to start plainly as a lament, moves into portraiture of a near madman, and even – especially as Nora's fate becomes uncertain – takes on shades of a Vertigo-like creeper. As present-day Francis drinks and drugs himself into a stupor, the plot's forward thrust sputters a bit – popped-pill haze, in writing as in life, is weary-making – but the elegance and clarity of Arnold-Ratliff's prose never wavers. She's a knockout writer, every page littered with sensation-rich imagery: a licked hand tastes of the "dim tang of salt"; of his whirlwind week with Nora, Francis recalls "I had acclimated to you like a new time zone." While the book's dual storylines – then and now – both starter-pistol with violent acts, Arnold-Ratliff ruthlessly details the tiny emotional violences we wreak on the people we mean to love – the casual cruelties, the barely concealed loathing, the way we will invent an imagined slight, act out a whole fight in our heads, and then nurse that fictional wronging like a stiff drink. Francis, frankly, is a monster, at least in long spurts, but the story doesn't end there, or begin there, for that matter; it's all part of the book's liquid continuum of who Francis was, who he is now, and who he might be next.