Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Barry Johnson, Fri., April 27, 2001
Crawling at NightA Novel
by Nani Power
Atlantic Monthly Press, 240 pp., $24
What if life were a list, its daily accomplishments scribbled on a page as items on a menu? The idea sounds bizarre, but Crawling at Night, for all its weaknesses, fulfills this very conceit with surprising strength. Power's debut novel begins each chapter with a menu that features ingredients used by the characters as instruments in their own demise. These items seem almost routine at first: Any menu featuring vodka or some other cosmopolitan beverage is bound to involve Mariane, a waitress failing to come to grips with her alcoholism. Similarly, menus with sushi seem designed for Ito, a lonely chef who seeks Mariane's company as a replacement for his deceased wife. But as Crawling at Night progresses, the menus take on a more dynamic role, bringing the characters together in unexpected ways rather than binding them in their own predictability.
The result is engaging, to be sure, but often void of humor and quite manipulative as Ito and Mariane enact a relationship that seems written to evoke tragedy simply to intensify an already depressing tale. Power's prose is heavy-handed at times ("in this country, one wears loneliness like a coat") and too often tells us what we already know about the characters. What we don't know about them is what provides suspense, and Crawling at Night shines when it explores the dark pasts of Mariane and Ito, pasts that involve murder, prostitution, and the loss of children. These flashbacks bring the novel full circle, making the characters' current miserable existence slightly more palatable. Night isn't merely a moral lesson, however. Power blends Japanese culture and cuisine into her tale, and some of the novel's most vibrant moments describe the art of sushi preparation, its skill and roots in tradition. Still, as a tale of urban anonymity, Crawling at Night needs a course of atmosphere; the characters' actions seem less a function of New York City's stranglehold and more of Power's manipulative prowess. Crawling at Night's "menu" is full of life's most hypnotic addictions; just don't expect a picnic.