I never thought a charming, sleepy haven about the size of the Shire would become a hotspot. This cozy small town, with its old-fashioned downtown and Cafe Diem coffeehouse, holds the world record for new Covid-19 cases. How could this happen here? Not literally here, but in the midwest.
Fortunately, I have found refuge in a good book. And so let me fervently recommend Gabriella Burnham’s haunting first novel, It Is Wood, It Is Stone. Brazil is so exotic that I feel I have taken a trip as I hear the voice of Linda, the thoughtful narrator, recounting the mixture of confusion and inspiration she feels during a year there.
A former newspaper writer and artist, Linda is unsure about her future. She has lost her way. She is on the verge of breaking up with her husband, but follows him to Brazil when he accepts a visiting professor job, hoping for a fresh start.
Although Linda finds Brazil beautiful and exotic, she is uneasy. She finds everything strange, does not know Portuguese, and resents having a maid, Marta, who is assigned to clean this apartment, whoever the tenants may be. Linda wants to get rid of Marta; when that proves impossible, she tries to help with the housework and cooking, while Marta ignores her. In this hostile atmosphere, Linda becomes increasingly paranoid about navigating the city alone.
It is impossible not to empathize with Linda. She is isolated and afraid.
It had been days, possibly even weeks, since I’d gone outside. I couldn’t let go of the apartment, even just for an afternoon, for fear that Marta might grow roots in our bedroom and reorganize the air so that I could no longer breathe. She had called that morning from a pay phone to say the buses were delayed because of the rain. I could hear the commotion in the background—the anxious stir of late commuters rumbling like a wasps’ nest. She wouldn’t be in until noon.
For once, Linda is happy. In Marta’s absence, Linda dresses up in her husband’s linen suit and, feeling like a different person, takes a walk. Driven into a bar by the rain, she meets Celia, the director of a. small experimental theater. And from this point Linda becomes engaged with the culture, because she and Celia become intense best friends and Celia teaches her Portuguese.
This novel is more about style than plot. The writing is breathtaking, and I felt that I was there: Burnham, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Brazil, lyrically and evocatively describes the beauty and strangeness. And her exploration of Linda’s complicated consciousness will remind you of the prose of Virginia Woolf crossed with Catherine Lacey , Adrienne Rich, and the late work of Isabel Allende. Linda addresses her thoughts to her husband, whom she refers to as “you.” And as Linda and Celia become close, Linda seems to free herself from the conventional strictures of being a faculty wife.
Part of the book is from Marta’s point of view, and though I did not find it as engrossing, Burnham pulls it off.
If you read It Is Wood, It Is Stone, let me know what you think. I absolutely loved it.