Book Review: Let the Dark Flower Blossom by Norah Labiner (Coffee House Press, 2013)
Reviewed for Gently Read Literature, Fall 2013 Issue
In Greek mythology, Pandora, the first woman, was given many gifts from the gods. Athena gave her clothing; Aphrodite endowed her with beauty; Hermes bestowed upon her the gift of speech. Zeus was not so benevolent. Seeking revenge after Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus presented a beautiful box (some say jar) to Pandora with one caveat. He instructed her not to open the box for any reason. Compelled by curiosity, Pandora could not resist, and, one by one, she unwittingly unleashed evils all over the world. The story of Pandora illustrates that we have a universal desire to seek and know the truth, no matter the cost. Sometimes, though, on our quest for fact, we discover ugly, unwelcome truths and malevolent, horrible acts.
Twins Sheldon and Eloise Schell have a box of their own in Norah Labiner’s dark, cerebral, and labyrinthine novel Let the Dark Flower Blossom. What secrets are the mysterious pair keeping? What evils lurk inside the box? And what monsters can be found in each of us who call ourselves readers?
Metafiction, or writing about writing, features prominently in Let the Dark Flower Blossom. When the story opens, celebrated novelist Roman Stone, former college friend of the twins, has died. He was murdered in an attempted robbery. When Eloise first met Stone in college, she remarked, “Roman Stone was born to be murdered.” Although Labiner shows Stone’s character only in flashbacks, he figures prominently in the story. Roman ironically “wrote of fate and then fell to it.” Later in the book, Labiner reveals that Stone “was murdered. And he deserved it.” Considering his rocky past with the twins, one cannot help but wonder if they played a role in his death.
Very early on in the novel, the author deftly illustrates Sheldon’s jealousy of Stone, who wrote the bestselling book Babylon Must Fall on Sheldon’s typewriter. Roman “was big and brash and relevant as hell. Even his death was relevant. America’s literary zeitgeist cut down in the heartland? What did it mean? Was it a metaphor? Or a symbol? It was more than an ending; it alluded to godlessness and dark times ahead.” Labiner hints his death might also unravel her characters or at least make their lives messier.
Varied perspectives allow the reader to get into each of Labiner’s bold and unforgettable characters. In addition to the twins serving as narrators, Labiner also chronicles her tale from the points of view of a young woman named Beatrice who lives on an atmospheric island in the middle of Lake Superior and another young woman named Susu who wants us to know there are rules to telling a story. Because of Labiner’s multiple voices, flash fiction is a worthy and effective narrative form in Let the Dark Flower Blossom. Sometimes the author gives us only one sentence from a character and then changes the point of view to another narrator; in other instances, one raconteur may tell the story for several pages.
Using different storytellers enables Labiner to show the unreliability of memory. For example, the author alludes to a horrible secret the twins are keeping about their childhood—a mystery that involves a fire, a locked box, and death. While Sheldon remembers an incident one way, Eloise recalls something very different. To get to the truth, we must sift through clues and symbolism. If humans have a natural curiosity, like Pandora, then humans also have a biological inclination to lie. Let the Dark Flower Blossom overflows with unreliable narrators, some of whom are downright liars. Employing various plot twists and red herrings throughout her story, Labiner makes an already intriguing and beguiling tale much more so. As the author reveals to me through email, “Novels deceive and seduce; this is an inherently and unabashedly dishonest form. Every novel is lying to you. Every novel wants to get you into bed. Every novel will pull the chair out from under you.”
The narrative occasionally meanders with strange though beautiful streams of consciousness, but this is done purposefully, to throw the reader a curveball, to keep her off-track. Labiner’s work of fiction never bores. Instead, Let the Dark Flower Blossom accomplishes something very few novels do these days—the tale forces the reader to think not only about the book itself but also about writing, reading, and even the nature of being human. “A story is a labyrinth, and all paths lead to the monster,” Labiner writes. “Who is the monster? Is it the storyteller? A good storyteller must be a monster. The best stories tell of the worst of human nature. The worst, our broken laws. Our nightmares realized. To write of such things, an author must commit the act himself; if only on the page.” “What of the readers?” she asks. “In the real world, we read our newspapers. We butter our bread. We read of murder and we are sickened. But in fiction, in the story: we want the dead girl. So—who is the monster?”
Let the Dark Flower Blossom is wholly original and brilliantly imaginative. Labiner says she wanted to “to write a story about the things I love: gardens gone to ruin, dogs and cats, about chocolate and oranges and mythological punishments for unspeakable crimes. It’s an ode to Poe, Hawthorne, Hitchcock, and Hollywood….” In her words, Let the Dark Flower Blossom is “an unrequited love story about an unrepentant writer and an unreliable reader.” She tells me she is currently “working on a novel about Lizzie Borden and little dogs and trains and hatchets and the history of the corset. It’s called I Murdered Philip Roth: A Love Story.” If it’s as powerful a story as this, count me in.
Equal parts satire, tragedy, and comedy, Let the Dark Flower Blossom may be fiction, but Labiner offers us insight into universal themes and emotions—such as jealousy, memory, sibling bonds, celebrity, violence, and morality— in her novel. The author has created a living narrative, one that almost seems to grow, change, and breathe right before our eyes. It is almost as if Labiner’s story has a mind of its own. You’ll never read a book the same way again. And you may think twice before you open any more boxes, especially those that are meant to stay closed.
To see other reviews and essays in Gently Read Literature‘s Fall Issue, please visit this website.