Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lamb navigates family secrets

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With the legalization of same-sex marriage in much of North America, bestselling American author Wally Lamb's latest novel is especially topical.

This is typical of Lamb, whose first two novels -- She's Come Undone (1992) and I Know This Much Is True (1998) -- dealt with childhood obesity and mental illness. The Hour I First Believed (2008), his third book, referenced the horrors of war and the Columbine high school shooting.

We Are Water

By Wally Lamb

HarperCollins,

576 pages, $30

We Are Water begins a few years after Annie Oh, a housewife-turned artist, has left her husband of almost 27 years -- or "defected," as he puts it -- to move in with her female lover, Viveca, a wealthy art collector and dealer.

Reportedly based on Norwich, Conn., where Lamb was born, Three Rivers is also the fictional setting for two of Lamb's earlier novels. Today, Lamb is a resident of Mansfield, Conn.

Annie's marriage announcement elicits varying reactions from the Oh's adult children. Ariane, the oldest, empathizes with her father Orion, a psychologist at the university in Three Rivers, while her twin Andrew, an evangelical Christian, is embarrassed and revolted by the very notion. Their young, hip sister, Marissa -- an actress -- is, like, totally cool with it.

For his part, Orion seems to have moved past his initial bewilderment, but agonizes over whether or not he will attend the ceremony. Making matters worse, he finds himself at the centre of a sex scandal at the university.

Much as in the Joyce Carol Oates novel We Were the Mulvaneys, We Are Water navigates the perilous territory of family secrets.

Kept hidden, their secrets threaten to consume the Ohs, as do the very things they turn to for refuge -- be it art, religion, booze or relationships.

The chapters are narrated by alternating family members, and a few by more peripheral characters, mostly for exposition purposes.

Annie and Orion's chapters are especially well-written, with clear, eminently human voices that reminisce on the ups and downs of their courtship and marriage. It's difficult to choose a side; as in real life, things are never black and white.

Annie discovers her passion for creating art almost by accident, some years into family life with Orion, and it quickly becomes the channel for her unresolved pain and anger, or as she explains, a way to "(f)ight back against the monster."

Lamb takes his time teasing out her story, revealing it in small doses over several chapters.

At times, Lamb can be heavy-handed, especially when it comes to his water theme; besides the events and places involving bodies of water, allusions -- some of them clumsy -- surface everywhere: the town of Three Rivers, Viveca's sea-green wedding dress, even the name Oh sounds like the French word for water, eau.

Lamb hammers his message home in a heart-to-heart between Orion and Andrew.

"'All of life came from the ocean, right? Even us... We are like water, aren't we? We can be fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too.'"

Though it's a fairly long read, most of the novel is deeply compelling.

If the middle section covering the lives of the Oh children tends to drag, Lamb's prose certainly flows like water, building effectively to an electrifying climax.

Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 16, 2013 A1

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