JUNIPER TREE BURNING

by Goldberry Long (Simon & Schuster, $25) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Fri., June 29

WHEN YOU

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JUNIPER TREE BURNING

by Goldberry Long (Simon & Schuster, $25) Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main, 624-6600 7:30 p.m. Fri., June 29

WHEN YOU BEGIN a novel, you hope for easy access to the vast expanse of an author's imagination, which is exactly where first-time novelist Goldberry Long intends her readers to go. In Juniper Tree Burning, Long crafts a beguiling tale of hippie hardship and womanly wiles through the eyes of shape-shifting Jennie, a.k.a. Juniper Tree Burning, a.k.a. the Ugly Chick. But the audacity! It's a whopping 460 pages and weighs about as much as a puppy. After you haul Long's long epic around for a week, you're going to need a masseuse. Or, as I found, wiping my eyes during the book's final, gut-wrenching pages, a hankie and a therapist.

Jennie/Juniper/Ugly Chick has a discouraging history, which transforms her from a lonely, neglected girl to a hardened, invulnerable adult, "a woman who knows how to make a fist." The daughter of dysfunctional '60s hippies who ran away from Seattle to the scabby mesas of rural New Mexico, Juniper Tree Burning (the name she renounces from birth) helps bring her younger brother, Sunny Boy Blue, into the world, and mythologizes tales of grandparents from Russia and Seattle, who were lumberjacks and lovers and pianists. Out of fragments she gleans from her distracted parents, she creates a sacred sense of a family unit to which she and Sunny are connected.

The older and wiser Jennie meets and marries Chris. She wants the wedding album, the happily-ever-after, the obliteration of all that went before. But within months of his ruining her dream nuptials, Sunny drowns after falling off a ferry bound for Bainbridge Island. Instinctively, Jennie does what she's learned from her father: She leaves. "She knows only that her name is Jennie and she's running, and she feels as if she always has been and always will be running, as if there are only those two things in the world: I am Jennie, who runs."

There is so much in this sprawling novel—too, too much, if you haven't got the patience: stories of mothers, fathers, marriages, names, communities, landscapes, siblings, friends, furies, fairy godmothers, cars, cults, and Jennie/Juniper/Ugly Chick's self in the face of everything. But it's a rare thing for a book to feel this genuinely whole despite its many themes and variations, for language to be so breathtaking it hits all the truest emotional pitches—that is to say, this book's worth its weight in words.

Emily Baillargeon Russin

ebrussin@seattleweekly.com

TWO MURDERS IN MY DOUBLE LIFE

by Josef kvorecky (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22)

IN THE PREFACE to his short yet remarkably dense novel, Two Murders in My Double Life, Czech native Josef kvorecky asserts, "To be an exile is, in some ways, to be a split personality. The longer one lives in a foreign country, the farther away one feels from the old homeland, and the fonder one gets of the new one. However, the old country never disappears beyond the horizon. . . ."

Such is the narrator's situation in kvorecky's novel. A former citizen of Prague, he left post-Communist Czechoslovakia after a publication wrongly accused his wife Sidonia of being a Communist informer. The couple moved to Canada, where the narrator teaches detective fiction at Edenvale College and Sidonia runs a small press. Upon the occurrence of two murders, the couple's—and the novel's— attentions become divided between Canada and Prague, present and past. An Edenvale math professor shows up dead—strangled with a piece of string—and the narrator, with the aid of the quick-witted Sidonia and a policewoman student, attempts to solve this crime that involves such diverse elements as the campus beauty, chipped nail polish, teacher-student sexual relations, and a brilliant research paper. Sudden, sensational, and promising closure, the Edenvale murder greatly contrasts with the Prague murder, which is much slower and more tragic, and—because it comes wrapped in bureaucratic tape rather than a single piece of string—which doesn't become apparent until book's end.

The novel's biggest red herring, the narrator, seems dependable one moment and fallible the next. He's the lovable, zany foreign prof, whose highly particular expertise in Poe stories somehow fits with his dated notions of the "weaker gender." He's also a man haunted by history, dependent upon drink, and perhaps not totally certain of his beloved Sidonia's innocence.

At one point, he advises a student how to solve a detective story: "'All that is impossible must be eliminated. . . . Then, whatever remains must be the truth.'" A masterfully planned intersection between mystery and realism, Two Murders is a novel in which the impossible collapses into the possible and vice versa. One might discover "the truth" upon multiple reads, but chances are the truth will be varied and Two Murders will never be completely solved.

David Massengill

dmassengill@seattleweekly.com

 
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