by Lisa Carey
Harper Perennial, 2006
Review by Christian Perring on Jul 8th 2008
Every Visible Thing is a story about a dysfunctional family failing to cope with tragedy. The Fureys live in the well-to-do Boston suburb of Brookline. Five years ago, their teen son Hugh left the house and never returned. For years his father Henry kept up the search, and the family still does not acknowledge that Hugh is very probably dead. They don't talk about him at all. Henry used to be a college theology professor, but he lost his job when he was discovered having an affair with a graduate student, so now he works in the publishing industry as an editor, reading manuscripts of popular religion books. His wife Elizabeth used to be a stay at home mother, and after Hugh's disappearance she spent years in bed, hardly talking to anyone. Now she has gone to medical school, with the aim of regaining the goal of her youth, of becoming a doctor. Henry and Elizabeth don't talk to each other much, and have little interaction with their children, 15-year-old Lena and 10-year-old Owen.
Carey's novel is really about the children. Chapters alternate between those narrated by Lena herself, and those about Owen, narrated in the third person. Both children are smart but deeply unhappy, and both start to go off the rails. Lena feels alienated at school and she wants to explore Hugh's life. He took lots of photographs, some of his rolls of film were never even developed. Lena learns how to process negatives, and starts going to the places that Hugh used to hang around. She learns about the person who used to supply Hugh and his girlfriend with drugs, and starts to spend time with a similar group of people. Lena has never had a boyfriend, and isn't interested in dating. She starts skipping school, disguises herself by dressing as a boy, and going to parties. She befriends a drug dealer called Sebastian, and they pick up girls together. Sebastian has sex with them, but Lena just kisses them, leaving them wanting more, and not risking them discovering that she is a girl. But she is taking other risks: Sebastian gives her drugs and she gets stoned regularly. She misses so much school that she will probably be kept back a year, yet despite the trouble she is in, her parents still don't notice.
Owen's mistake is to befriend the wrong boy. He starts spending time with Danny, who is 11 and was held back a year staying in the fifth grade. Danny has already reached puberty and he fools around with his girlfriends. It isn't long before Danny and Owen also start experimenting sexually with each other, and they start playing with each other on a regular basis. But one day when Danny is giving Owen oral sex, they are discovered by Danny's mother, and Owen is banished from Danny's house. Owen is so mortified that he fakes illness and doesn't go to school for a couple of weeks, and then when he does go back, he finds that the other fifth graders area all calling him gay and Danny is threatening to beat him up. So Danny keeps on faking illness, and stays at home most of the time.
Lena and Owen know that they are both deceiving their parents, but they don't tell. Their parents are so wrapped up in their own worlds that they hardly notice, until things come to a crisis for both children. Both of them end up in very dangerous situations, this brings the long-standing family problems to light.
There's a metaphysical thread running through the story. Henry is writing a book on angels, and Owen becomes preoccupied with wondering whether Hugh is an angel looking after him. But the strength of the book is in its depiction of how Owen and Lena think and the influence of Hugh's disappearance on their lives. The writing is beautiful and compelling. Every Visible Thing is a better written novel than Carey's previous one, Love in the Asylum, since it brings its characters alive. While the portrayal of troubled children and distant parents is hardly novel, Carey manages to bring energy and power to her story. Lena's time with Sebastian and her experimentation with gender roles is vividly conveyed. Owen's sexual curiosity and readiness to go along with what Danny initially wants are sensitively described; his resulting fear of being called gay and his questioning whether his is gay are very convincing. While some of the plot details carry a fair amount of dramatic license, those gaps in credibility don't detract from the story, because at its core, the novel rings true. It's entirely believable that these two children could get into the situations they do. Although Carey has her own distinctive style, she is comparable in skill to authors such as A.M. Homes. There are not so many authors who manage to successfully convey the emotional lives of teens and preteens in the face of family tragedy, and Carey has written an impressive novel.
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York