Alice Fulton, The Nightingales of Troy, WW Norton
One can almost taste dust when reading Alice Fulton’s The Nightingales of Troy. The book of interrelated short stories is not about the Dust Bowl, a dusty planet in a sci-fi tale, or a dessert. Rather, the dust is of the type kids find in their grandmother’s attic. Not just any attic, either, but the attic of peeling two-story clapboard houses like those found in old upstate New York towns along the Hudson River.
The stories carry readers through a century of women in a family settled in the Troy area where Fulton grew up. The book begins with Mamie Flynn Garrahan, who in 1908 milks the cows even though she’s in heavy labor preceding a birth she may have to endure by herself.
The book then follows the lives of Annie’s daughters to a granddaughter grieved by her the distortions of her dreams and her mother’s impending death. All the stories have about them the feel of old, brittle wallpaper and banisters polished to a sheen through years of hands sliding along the wood. The theme throughout reflects a sense of nostalgia, not for the good old days, but rather the real old days. The heartaches of loves lost, the killing silence of propriety, the ignorance of mental illness.
One by one, the characters experience joy that’s within their grasp, only to see happiness slip away into a life of making due. There’s Charlotte Garrahan, who gladly treats her fiancé to sweet suppers from the Sweet Shoppe where she works, only to discover the splintering distance between her family of modest farm roots and his moneyed Connecticut clan. Then there’s Annie Garrahan, who’s lifted to Florence Nightingale status largely based on an innocent, yet potent optimism, only to fall, forever crippled, when she fails to rescue a small boy.
The book is reminiscent of Alice Munro’s View From Castle Rock, a collection of interrelated short stories about an extended family that travels from Scotland to settle in Canada where, through the decades, the family continues to evolve according to the changing culture and landscape.
Unlike Munro’s effort, however, Fulton’s book, through the depiction of times past, begs an odd comparison between the standard literary treatment she uses and new emerging forms of literature. Highly-detailed, subtle and focused in the minute inner workings of characters, Fulton’s style in this endeavor gives the impression this type of storytelling has surpassed its time; that though still the bedrock of highly-respected literary journals, riskier and more innovative writing beckons elsewhere.