This book was such an easy and absorbing read you could almost miss how quietly impressive the writing is. It reminds me how important it is for writers to not just have a story to tell, but to also have something to say. And if you have something to say, sometimes the story isn’t even all that important.
The story in Carry the One is simple: after Carmen and Matt’s wedding in 1983, Carmen, Matt, Olivia, Nick, Tom, Alice, and Maude all clamber into a car at three in the morning. Nick, in the front passenger seat, and Olivia who is driving, are both high, too high to stop the car from hitting a ten year old girl when she wanders into the road. She dies, and all seven adults in the car spend the rest of their lives feeling inseverably linked to that one moment. From then on, there is before the accident, and there is after the accident.
It’s a dramatic moment, certainly, but a simple one. There’s no magical realism, no mystery, no further details later revealed in flashback. It takes up the space of slightly more than one chapter. And from there the stories of the seven characters look, from the outside, like the stories of many other people with no such horrific incident in their pasts. Carmen and Matt eventually get divorced. Alice and Maude share a passionate but intermittent love affair. Olivia goes to prison and comes out hard and distant. Nick abuses drugs. Tom seems to have forgiven himself. But this is just the story Anshaw tells. The book is great because she actually has something to say about life using the the story. Its thematic scope is that of a Greek tragedy: the characters feel that they have been doomed by a power beyond themselves, yet still suffer in the knowledge that, nonetheless, they were at fault.
That they feel guilt is obvious. In different ways, they punish themselves mercilessly over the course of the book, and these punishments constitute the main plot points. In their musings and in Anshaw’s prose, we are shown how the characters feel cosmically manipulated, cheated out of the lives they should have had: “Bits of our energy fused together that night. Soldered filaments on the cosmic web.” This is spoken by Nick, who is, significantly, an astronomer. His skill at discovering bodies and events in the sky is juxtaposed with his intense earthly suffering. Before the accident, drugs are a casual recreation for him: “On his off nights he explored– through doors opened by hallucinogens and opiates– an inner universe.” After the accident, he uses drugs to slowly kill himself. He himself is compared to a heavenly body: “In order to keep liking Nick (as opposed to loving him, which was non-negotiable), Alice sometimes had to look at him obliquely, or with her eyes half closed, or through a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. Straight on would burn her retinas.” This kind of seemingly one-off comparison is actually one in a series of metaphors that create an overarching symbolic narrative for the book. This is what I mean when I say Anshaw’s writing is quietly impressive. She maintains an unostentatious prose tone that never breaks pace, never calls attention to itself, and is seamless.
The comparative metaphor of earthly versus ethereal takes on a temporal aspect, since each of the characters is anchored so heavily to a point in the past. This manifests literally in Alice’s paintings of the little girl, whom she renders in various stages of her life as if she had lived to grow up. Olivia, who lives with the knowledge that she was most directly responsible for the girl’s death, feels that “Guilt… was the easiest, the simplest response. Much more complicated was living past guilt, bearing the permanence, accommodating the weight of having done something terrible and completely undoable.” Nick also experiences this temporal displacement. At one point, he tells Alice about looking at the clock at 3:17, going downstairs to buy a coffee, and coming back to see that the clock was still running, yet somehow still read 3:17: ” I just exit regular forward momentum, then I come back in at exactly the place where I left.”
It is often a pleasant thing for a character to be relatable. Several of the characters in Carry the One are painfully relatable. It is not enjoyable to feel such a combination of loathing, pity, and identification with people who have made a mistake of such proportions. Yet reading Carry the One was an enjoyable experience, not only because I admired Anshaw’s really excellent writing, but because the characters are allowed some joy, some worth despite the darkness they carry with them.