Melinda Moustakis opens her novel in 1956, when Lawrence Beringer, former paratrooper, chooses to homestead in the Alaskan territory. Within hours of signing for the land, Lawrence — struggling, in the rugged landscape, to find his new property — encounters two helicopter pilots who inform him that he's wandered close to a radar tower for the Nike Missile Defense system.
"Missiles, when he had tried to find a place far away from everything," Moustakis writes. Here the novel hints that plans will be repeatedly thwarted, but the narrator also reflects Lawrence's willfulness: "He will claim what he is owed. And by the work of his hands this will all be his."
The natural world is ever-present in this work, and most of the shatteringly beautiful writing has at its center a mountain range, a body of water, an animal or the snow. The image of Lawrence's newly pregnant wife, Marie, eating handfuls of mud, solidifies the Beringers' strong ties to the earth. "Snow came and went, a promise and a lie," Moustakis writes, a phrase that could apply to the Beringer marriage, as well.
Lawrence's secrecy and taciturnity wear on Marie, who blames her husband for the tragic end of her first pregnancy. Lawrence finally makes a confession of his own — he believes "He was not a good solider, not honorable, or brave"— yet Marie "envies Lawrence because he can point to a war, something out there, that he survived, and she — her very own flesh and blood a failing."
Lawrence's father, Joseph, and Marie's sister, Sheila, appear on occasion to cut through the thick sorrow surrounding the Beringers. They come with gifts (eggs, cherry wine) and a willingness to talk, and with their own sadness (Sheila, for instance, struggles with infertility). One of the novel's abiding concerns is the strength of desire, the power of great ambition — for legacy, for property — and the fallout when those desires and ambitions cannot be met.
During Marie's second pregnancy, Lawrence survives an attack from a mother bear protecting her cubs. Rather than strengthening his connection with Marie, "what happened that day in the field changed his mind. … Marie … had made him lose sight of what was rightfully his."
Having promised his wife that she could add her name to their property, he rescinds without her knowledge. His silence and recalcitrance — "Words, he hates them" — are an additional way he withholds from Marie. Moustakis signals that Lawrence will ultimately fail — "If this is not ours, I will make it ours," she writes as Marie and Sheila walk through the woods together.
The final third of the novel plunges deeper into questions of ownership and entitlement, with Moustakis' well-drawn characters reaching wildly different conclusions in this often somber, often radiantly beautiful work.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She is a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.
By: Melinda Moustakis.
Publisher: Flatiron, 303 pages, $27.99.