cover image School for the Blind CL

School for the Blind CL

Dennis McFarland. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $21.95 (287pp) ISBN 978-0-395-64497-3

McFarland's first novel, The Music Room , was justly praised for its insights into human nature and its graceful prose. His new work will draw raves for yet deeper sensibilities, as he tackles the subjects of aging and death. Here he chronicles the waning years of two elderly siblings, Francis and Muriel Brimm, as they reluctantly come to grips with the past and learn to accept their gradual decline. Yet this is no lugubrious story, for as he did in his earlier book, McFarland places a mystery at the center of the tale. Walking on the golf course near the Florida town where Muriel has spent her life and to which retired photojournalist Frank has returned, they discover the bones of two students from the nearby school for the blind. The search for the killer's identity forces Frank and Muriel to abandon their own willed ``blindness'' and to retrieve memories of their childhood with a mean, alcoholic father and a stern, cold mother. Eventually Muriel must confront the devastating fact of her father's molestation. (If this plot strand smacks of overuse, let it be said that in McFarland's hands it acquires fresh credibility and poignancy.) McFarland moves the plot with deliberate speed, interweaving some memorable supporting characters, the most vivid of whom is tough-mouthed Dierdre, Muriel's housecleaner, who acquires a pivotal role in their lives; a gentle black police detective; and several neighbors. There is a new dimension to McFarland's writing here, as he displays an extraordinary ability to describe both states of mind and the evanescent physical sensations that accompany them. His technical control is admirable in his subtle contrast of Muriel's spiritual longings with Frank's cynical agnosticism and his inspired use of a Chekhov story. Though he writes unsentimentally about old age and death, when he allows his language to soar into poetry, it is transcendent and beautifully moving. BOMC selection; author tour. (May)