cover image Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven

Marianne Wiggins. Crown Publishers, $3.99 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-517-70762-3

Heavy-handed symbolism and cryptic plot elements undermine Wiggins's (John Dollar) otherwise provocative novel about two people stunned by grief. Burned-out, Harvard-educated foreign correspondent Holden Garfield wishes he could erase his memories of the war in Bosnia, especially that of a crucified baby nailed to a tree. Melanie Page has also suffered trauma, but hers is so severe--she witnessed the death of her husband and four sons in a tornado--that her memory has vanished. Ironically, Holden may hold the key to her recovery, since his mentor and old friend was Melanie's brother, Noah Johns, who has gone underground for mysterious reasons. Holden decides to take Melanie (who now calls herself Johnnie) from the psychiatric wing of a Virginia hospital to South Dakota, where Noah is hiding. The journey becomes a quest for both of them and is complicated by sexual passion and Melanie's age: she is old enough to be Holden's mother. Holden is a puzzling figure: he calls his mother Kanga and his father Pooh; he has two college friends named Syd, who are marrying each other. He talks in insistently idiomatic dialogue, and Wiggins describes his thoughts in abrupt fragments meant to demonstrate his wired mental state. Wiggins's writing is intelligent, yet her manipulation of characters and themes is blatant. In addition to the repetitive connection between weather and human relationships, she offers interesting meditations on guilt; the mechanism and gestalt of memory and its ""dark twin,"" amnesia; psychoanalytic theory; and the culture of the South. Her premise is promising: ""If she could help him to forget [the horrors of war], he could help her to remember... they could learn to face their grief together."" But the novel's abrupt and melodramatic conclusion (that we never learn why Noah is hiding is only one of the loose ends) leaves too many issues and relationships unresolved. Author tour. (Sept.)