Thursday, May 7, 2015
Book Review of Vera Jane Cook's novel "Pleasant Day"
To bet on time leading our conscience and consciousness away from an unsolved murder with the innocence of distance is to live under a digressive burden, one that can bring about a backlash of unreliable memories, protruding mental images, and the bonding of two generations of women. These steps towards the painful truth are woven in Vera Jane Cook’s fictional chronicle of mystery and homicide, “Pleasant Day.”
Pleasant Day is the novel’s namesake and fifteen year old protagonist. She is working on moving “to some big city to be a no account writer living on promises and dreams.” Together with the much older character of Clarissa Blackwell, Pleasant Day hardly falls into the traditional female spheres of submissiveness and subordination. Pleasant does have an aggrieved soul which overlaps with Clarissa’s own peace-deprived spirit as they are forced to dwell on the suspicions that are circulating in the South Carolina town of Hollow Creek about two murders, one taking place fifteen years before the other.
Pleasant’s and Clarissa’s confronting the past and their cooperative venture in finding the truth about the murders leave their special imprint on both of them. Delving back into the past and acknowledging their reluctant but strong predisposition to it remakes both women’s existence thereby giving them the courage and balance they need to get through the rest of their lives. In not secluding the past from the present in “Pleasant Day,” Vera Jane Cook freights the former with as much meaning as the latter.
Despite the pitfalls of attempting to imbue what might be the “truth” with some potency, the time comes in the novel’s unfolding drama to revive the past notwithstanding the long silence that reigned over the murders of two young girls. Placed in the eye of the storm, Clarissa not only harnesses the past, but the metaphysical as well by relying on supernatural images in her mind to guide her towards the truth of who was responsible for the murders. Often though, the accumulated knowledge of the past can lay siege to any formative and extant mental processes and emotional states such as those of Clarissa and Pleasant Day.
Before reading any novel, it’s always a good thing to allow the narrative’s plot and characters to develop before passing any judgement. Readers should also consider that every novel opens a window onto new lives and experiences however fabricated with literary license, with the author’s hope that his or her audience will feel some variance in their own lives for the better.
But crossing the threshold of what is a good novel and what is a mediocre one can sometimes be a ghost chase. Regrettably this is the case with “Pleasant Day” as it does not transcend the qualitatively grey area in which it becomes mired in. A broad stretch of Cook’s story does adequately provide the creature comforts of a kosher mystery novel being steeped as it is in the mysterious connections between the past and the present.
At the same time, “Pleasant Day” is not free from what I would call an increasing stress of mediocrity. I’m not so much concerned with Cook’s effort: she puts her heart and soul into her work to the fullest. But what I look for in a novel is that it carves out a singular place in my memory, a novel that provokes an unforced conviction in me that I have read something notable. Whatever literary or intellectual stimulation “Pleasant Day” offers is overcome by the malnourishment of its writing style and by its languid manner of building psychological and emotional momentum in its narrative.
What might have been Cook’s overestimation of the wider reading public’s magnetic appeal for the mystery genre may have cheated her out of a distinctively thrilling book. Cook must be aware that mystery novels are unfailingly popular and she perhaps banked a great deal of her hopes on that. Rather than something to be excited about, the creeping overall drudgery of her prose and plot steers the novel towards an event horizon where its words, sentences, and characters get stiflingly prosaic for those who have gone to the trouble of reading it.
“Pleasant Day” is a reminder of a novel unfulfilled, a novel in which one falls asleep reading it barely halfway through and then awakes at the end to find that nothing much has changed.