Lisa Russ Spaar
Persea Books / 2022 / 219 pp / $25.95
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hall Magill / December 2022
Acclaimed poet Lisa Russ Spaar’s debut novel, Paradise Close, makes readers feel as though paradise is both close and closing. It is a story of two narratives that seem disconnected until a surprise ending brings them together. The first narrative centers on orphaned teenager Marlise Schade, who roams Paradise Close, her abandoned ancestral home. In the second narrative, artist Emma Miles and poet Tee Handle, professors at the University of Virginia, have a passionate affair. Both narratives are told from multiple third-person perspectives and span decades—beginning in 1971, ranging as far back as 1914, and ending in 2017—to create the framework for the novel’s leitmotif of time.
In an interview, Spaar, a Professor of English at the University of Virginia whose previous accomplishments include five books of poetry and a Guggenheim fellowship, describes “the dance of Chronos and Kairos” as “an antic tension in the book.” Chronos is linear time, while Kairos seems infinite: it is how time feels when we are fully present in a moment. Spaar doesn’t name or define these concepts—instead, she threads them throughout the novel. Paradise Close does more than use the dance between Chronos and Kairos as antic tension: it creates the dance itself.
When the novel opens—in the winter of 1971—Marlise, who is anorexic, has just been released from a mental hospital. She lives in Paradise Close, a farm in the New Jersey countryside that includes corn fields, orchards, and a vineyard. Marlise keeps a photograph of her mother, “the mythic Bea,” in a favorite book. The photograph is stamped with the year 1955. Through flashback, we get the history behind the photograph—a feminist history with a secret at the center. Although Marlise doesn’t learn this secret when we do, she is haunted by thoughts of her mother, as well as thoughts of Silas, a manic, suicidal artist she left behind at the mental hospital.
Marlise wanders the rooms of the Close alone, sleeping and eating sporadically and reading the long letters Silas has sent her. She remembers life in the Institute, where the manic patients had “. . . hands hanging useless as the pendulums of broken clocks” and she once “. . . felt the world sliding inexorably from equinox to the extremes of solstice.” Spaar’s language plays the broken clocks against the inexorable slide of time: images of Chronos. And she ends this part of the novel on an image of Kairos—a hovering owl—that invokes a sense of forgotten paradise.
As a blizzard approaches, Marlise’s anorexia worsens. Her uncle finds her in peril and drives Marlise to a hospital. Just as they are about to pull out of the driveway, “. . . something whooshed toward the windshield, thumping it hard, hovering, holding itself a long second right there in front of them, making a blue crux in the white welter, its off-kilter wingspan wide as an angel’s.”
We are left hanging in this moment.
Similar images—and equally fascinating descriptions—at the opening of Part Two make the attraction between Emma and Tee riveting. They meet when Tee comes to Emma’s print shop to discuss the possibility of her creating art for his latest book of poems. Emma thinks Tee is “. . . on fire, lit like one of Blake’s angels or some sort of beseeching, bespectacled saint.” And Tee believes that Emma needs to be seen, “like one of her printed gilt birds beating against the black-etched bars of a claustral house seeking egress.”
Spaar gives us the story of their affair, which occurs in 2000 and 2001, interspersed with Tee’s life in 2016, when he is living alone in an abandoned house much like Paradise Close. This house—Handel Hall, which Tee calls The Hole—is a dilapidated Southern mansion originally occupied by Tee’s mentally ill great aunt. At sixty, Tee retires to The Hole, where he spends his nights fiddling with the “catch wheels” and “escapements” of clocks. As he works with a symbol of Chronos (the clocks), his body, sleepless, is in Kairos. He believes that he “. . . must hold inside himself a host of inner clocks.”
Spaar’s dance between Chronos and Kairos gives us characters—both those we know well and those whose secrets we never learn—who are bound by an elusive sense of paradise. One of Tee’s memories involves an argument with Emma in which he compares a peach orchard they are visiting to Eden. She replies that they are “. . . banished somewhere outside of paradise.” Tee lives alone with this banishment until an unknown woman starts living in an abandoned section of The Hole. Tee names her Juke because she has written that name on a fogged window. We never learn Juke’s history—where she came from, or why she once wanted to die. As the novel ends, we see her with Tee, who allows her “. . . to fasten around his wrist a bracelet made of threaded wire and the needle hands and notched face plates of old watches.”
Emma—whose history we learn in Part Three of the novel—ended her affair with Tee over his jealousy about her career, but she still feels as though he is “with her, all the time—his voice in her ear, slow down, make time . . .” She does so in these final pages, when we learn the surprise that ties the narratives together along with some of the novel’s secrets. Emma is sixty-one, a professor and an artist in New York, divorced from the man she was married to when Tee was her lover. When she goes with her daughter to an art exhibition, she is surprised by what she finds.
As she is recovering from the shock, she thinks about her life, overcome with gratitude and understanding: “The child self, the emerging self, the aging self, any self—is always imperiled. Yet if it is glass-like in its breakability, its fragility, it is also glass-like in its tensility. Its obscurity, its clarity. Both. Its view out, its mirror in.” This gorgeous language reflects Emma’s experience with time and brings her close to paradise. Paradise Close gives readers a sense that our elusive awareness of the infinite deeply informs, and shapes, our linear lives.
Elizabeth Hall Magill completed an MFA in Writing with a concentration in fiction from Spalding University in May of 2022. Her fiction has appeared in Oyster River Pages.