Game of Secrets

I'm willing to bet that there's lots of crossover between Scrabble enthusiasts and avid readers of literary fiction. Combine Scrabble and fiction successfully—in other words, do what Vladimir Nabokov did for chess in The Defense—and you could have a winner.

You've got to give Dawn Tripp credit for trying.  In fact, it's the Scrabble hook that attracted me to her new novel, promoted as a story in which "a simple board game offers the link that can finally untangle two families' tragic past."  But although two key characters meet weekly to duke it out over a Scrabble board, don't expect them to spell out their secrets in little wooden tiles. Tripp draws some wonderful analogies between her characters' personalities and Scrabble strategies (open board versus tightly defensive play, for example), but the root of their twisted connection is ultimately exposed not through the words they play but through their reminiscences and ruminations—and those of their offspring. Much of this musing is interior, and thick with the sort of poetic language that calls attention to itself.

Game of Secrets, Tripp's third novel, after Moon Tide and The Season of Open Water, is an atmospheric small-town saga set in a Massachusetts fishing village.  It's about the damaging weight of the unspoken, and the way the quicksand suck of the past pulls against the need to scramble free of it.  Her Scrabble players are Ada Varick, still a beauty at nearly eighty, and Jane Weld Dyer, twenty years her junior and the daughter of Ada's former lover, Luce Weld.  Luce, divorced from Jane's mother, was a "rakish no-good," a "bootlegger turned poultry thief" who disappeared when Jane was twelve, leaving the first hole in her life.  When his skull turned up in a gravel pit five years later with a bullet hole shot clean through it, everyone assumed that it was Ada's abusive, alcoholic husband, Silas Varick, who had killed him.

Besides Luce's death, Jane and Ada share another tragedy that has reverberated through their families: they've each lost a young son. They're also bound by a library book, The Secret of Light,  which Luce gave to his daughter on their last Saturday together after Ada left it in his car.  I found my mind switching off each time one of Tripp's characters quoted from this dim book.

Further connections among these tightly entwined families include Ada's ne'er-do-well son Huck's ill-advised adolescent crush on Jane. Now, forty years later, Ada's youngest son, Ray, is attracted to Jane's difficult daughter, Marne, who's moved home from California after an alarming call from her brother about their mother's mental state.

It's a lot of keep straight, and Tripp's constant shifts in time and point of view add to the challenge.  So, too, does the fact that all the characters sound alike. The parade of chapter and section headings—"Parables of Sunlight," "Glance," "Salvage," "The Night Pool," "Husk," "Tribes," "Frost Fish"—however lovely,  are further distractions rather than enhancements. There are evocative images of the area's natural beauty, including Jane's comment on "that certain honesty of winter, all things stripped back to be only what they are," and Marne's observation that "You meet yourself differently at night." But a description of a newborn baby's laughter as sounding "like bits of rind cut from the sun" struck me as trying too hard. "My head hurts, not in the usual way," Marne complains at one point, "but like I can hear a whole sky of stars." Hmm.

Spanning nearly fifty years, Game of Secrets deliberately holds back its revelations, often to the point of frustration. In Scrabble terms, it feels like being stymied with rack after rack of all vowels and miserable one-point letters.  In the end, Tripp plays all her letters and fills her board, but although she warns us that "It can all turn at the end," I felt cheated by a tricky move in her endgame.

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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