THE LINES. By Anthony Varallo. University of Iowa Press. 220 pages. $17.
Anthony Varallo set himself a formidable challenge: to write a novel about divorce from the perspective of two young children. And to avoid naming the children, or their parents, or most other characters in the book. And to set the action in a nameless suburbia in the 1970s during the gasoline crisis and before the digital age.
Smartphones and social media do not factor in. This is a novel about people, their interactions, their feelings and failures, their tentative embrace of the new, their growing pains and their disappointments.
“The Lines” is full of disappointments, and yet it manages in its episodic way to hint at the light. Maybe it’s the girl’s cleverness that reassures the reader, or the knowledge that the boy’s clumsiness and naivete eventually will give way to understanding. Maybe it’s the attention to the details of the era and the precision with which Varallo presents the workings of the young mind. Or maybe it’s the leisurely pace, the sequence of relatively mundane events that, like wildflowers, often are not intrinsically interrelated but nevertheless cohere into a brilliant display.
Varallo, who teaches at the College of Charleston, writes with fine-tuned sympathy for each of his characters, adult and child alike. He has a seemingly supernatural ability to convey the inner thinking of children: their confusion, their moments of self-awareness, their particular observations and rationalizations, their wonderment and insecurity and deep sadness when the superstructures of their restrictive world prove to be a house of cards.
“The boy is seven years old and has no idea about anything,” Varallo writes, setting the stage. “The girl turns ten next month and has some things figured out.”
Their parents’ separation is the start of a period of uncertainty in their lives. The boundaries blur, the rules change. Now the children benefit from two homes, two bedrooms, two sets of toys, an apartment complex pool to swim in, diminished oversight at home. Their mother returns to school. Their father starts a relationship with Sarah, a young woman, unsentimental and wise.
The girl grows attached to Sarah, and Sarah seems to care for the children.
Later, the mother starts dating Cliff, whose son Marcus turns out to be a bully who likes to set fire to the boy’s prized possessions. Life gets complicated. The mother and father grow distant, unable to provide the emotional support their children need. The grandmother only makes matters worse. Yet the girl slowly seems to be figuring things out. The boy remains innocent and befuddled until, finally, he learns to stand up for himself.
Life is complicated indeed. Divorce is a messy business. The emotional wounds it inflicts can be severe. Varallo shows us the pain and confusion, the guilt and effort, the adjustments made by adults and, especially, the resiliency of his young protagonists living in this imperfect place and time.
The cars line up at the gas stations, their drivers coping with long waits and short tempers. But the boy and the girl, absorbed by their circumstances, manage to find their voice and a way forward.