Changes of State

Joanna Hershon

On Susanna Moore and The Whiteness of Bones

I was preparing to teach my MFA workshop a couple of months ago when I realized that, in my comments to each of the three students who’d turned in their manuscripts, I’d recommended the same book. I hadn’t read The Whiteness of Bones in nearly thirty years, and I decided it was time to reread it. When I did, I not only fell in love once again with the sugarcane fields and mangrove roots, the acerbic dialogue and mysterious relationships, but I also made a surprising discovery about my own writing. 

Susanna Moore, in this exquisite second novel, evokes her wild Kaua’i with an unmistakably lush sense of place for the first fifty-seven pages. By the end of part one, we’re so dizzy with gorgeous prose that by the time part two begins and we’ve landed in a posh New York City apartment, despite having had nothing to prepare us for this sophisticated scene of socialites and strivers, we’re fully under Moore’s spell. The sensation of having traveled from the island of Kaua’i to the island of Manhattan is dislocating. Like our protagonist Mamie, we’re not only jet-lagged but in culture shock. It’s perfect. 

I’ve written five novels over the course of more than twenty years and it was only during this re-reading of The Whiteness of Bones that I discovered—right as my fifth book is about to be published—that at some point when I was a late teen or maybe in the dawn of my twenties, The Whiteness of Bones must have imprinted itself on my brain/psyche/soul so completely that I think it has maybe served as a subconscious blueprint for most of my books thus far.  The jump from a rural setting to an urban one (or the reverse) creates inherent drama. We get to know our characters in one extreme geography and when we meet them again they’ve changed. We don’t know the extent of their changes (not yet) but as their skin itself feels so different than the last time we were with them, even the subtle physical vicissitudes of moving under glittering city towers as opposed to palm trees are significant. 

My first novel, Swimming, starts at a house in the New Hampshire woods. By the end of part one, my protagonist Lila, like Mamie, has undergone a trauma. By part two, Lila is living in New York City. Lila and Mamie each have significant relationships with their siblings and a reticence with men. The similarities end there, but a girl raised in a wild setting, a girl struggling to find herself amidst a wholly unfamiliar urbanity is dear to me. My third novel, The German Bride, is set in the late 1800’s, and with that book I seem to have done the reverse. We get to know Eva as a girl and young woman in privileged, sophisticated Berlin. Her life is one of portrait painters and elaborate meals and taking strolls in the Tiergarten. When her life is upended by her own part one trauma, part two lands her in America’s Wild West. The desert with its stark beauty, grit, and true danger reveals previously unknown aspects of herself. During the five years or so that I researched Berlin and the American West, I collected photographs from the nineteenth century: mostly portraits, some daguerreotypes. While researching, I’d feel—more often than not—disoriented from the seemingly endless reading and taking notes, from what felt like constant searching. I’d take a break and focus on the daguerreotypes, look into different sets of eyes. A daguerreotype is created by light hitting a polished silver plate; the silver creates an image both ghostly and simultaneously eerily clear.  

The Whiteness of Bones is about more than coming-of-age and exquisite physical description. Susanna Moore writes frankly about servants and striving and inequality with a deceptively light touch. While beauty is a prominent theme of the novel, it’s often not all that pretty. Moore doesn’t shy away from the complexity of how love and trust can be intertwined with harm. The novel’s first chapter introduces the majesty of the landscape and all of the family members, including beloved Hiroshi. “He had been with her mother and father since before Mamie was born. After World War I, he had come from Japan when his father, working as an indentured laborer in the cane fields, had finally saved enough money to send for his family. McCully’s father had recognized Hiroshi’s gift for growing things and had given him to McCully and Mary as a wedding present.” The clear evocation of power and the structure in which this power is wielded is effortlessly drawn. Moore goes on to write tenderly about Hiroshi. “He had a wispy white chinbeard that Mamie liked to comb. The tufts of hair were like thin ribbons of smoke.” The physical comfort between Hiroshi and Mamie is palpable and sweet, and so when he “slid his old hands inside her faded shorts and moved it down inside her warm, white cotton underpants until it was resting softly on her labia,” when “there were tears in the wrinkles of his face,” we are just as confused as Mamie is. There is love present in this quiet moment as well as intractable destruction.  

What is it to come of age? The notion is inherently dramatic. Above all else, we want to capture what it feels like to grow, to pinpoint the moment or the series of moments when we emerge, blinking, from the cocoon of youth and step into the greater world. Regardless of where we start and where we surface, there must be a clear change. What is it? One can grow up in the same town, house, or room, but to write about change through a shifting landscape makes a certain visceral sense. The journey can also be literal. We want our protagonists to grow, we root for their decisions. They’re exciting and still young but not children. They are bound to memory. They need to break free. They are, above all, utterly full of potential. Time marches on but in a traditional coming-of-age story, time is always on the protagonist’s side.

My fifth novel St. Ivo is forthcoming in April. My protagonist is closer to fifty than forty. The coming-of-age flickers have burnt to embers, but of course there’s still that narrative spark—the potential for change. A woman rides the subway. There is danger around the corner as she takes a familiar path. By the next day she is swimming in a pond. She is, still, changing. Geographical shifts can mirror emotional ones. Thank you, Susanna Moore. 

Joanna Hershon is the author of the novels SwimmingThe Outside of AugustThe German Bride, and A Dual Inheritance. Her writing has appeared in GrantaThe New York TimesOne StoryVirginia Quarterly Review, and two literary anthologies, Brooklyn Was Mine and Freud’s Blind Spot. She is an adjunct assistant professor in the Creative Writing Department at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the painter Derek Buckner, their twin sons, and their daughter.