Perseverance has its rewards. I absolutely loved Alice Mattison’s smart, well-written new novel, Conscience. The characters are mature, the structure is brilliantly complex, and Mattison has something to say (so much to say). Told from three points-of-view, Conscience focuses on the consequences of reading, or rereading, a Vietnam-era novel, written by a friend and based on the life of another friend, a conscience-stricken anti-war activist who became a terrorist.
It begins in the present with the musings of Olive Grossman, an editor of crafts books and a biographer of women writers, who says she will never write a memoir, but wants to recall the exact moment of the commencement of a series of painful events. It began, she thinks, when her husband Griff, a high-school principal, asked to borrow Bright Morning of Pain, a novel written by her high school friend, Valerie Benevento. He has always refused to read the book, because it presents a a romanticized view of the actions of their friend Helen, who decided in the ’70s that words and demonstrations were not enough to end the war. And Griff and Olive are both characters in the book, too. Indeed, Olive and Griff separated years ago, partly because of their attitudes toward Valerie’s book. But Olive has been asked to write an essay about it for a magazine, in conjunction with a publisher’s reissuing a paperback with a readers’ guide. When Griff insists it’s time for him to read it, she is flattered.
What I’m saying is that Griff’s need for the book was sexy. It was also something else, though Griff wasn’t talking about Val Benevento’s book that morning as anything more than a book that mattered to me. Griff too had a connection with this book. Some men would have seized it the day it was published, read it, dismissed or condemned it, or become briefly famous discussing their connection to it. Another sort of man would be more comfortable pretending it didn’t matter and could be left unread, and Griff was one of those. This was different—and despite my nervousness, I was curious. Barefoot, I crossed the hall into my study and took my copy of Bright Morning of Pain from the shelf: the hardcover first edition, with its familiar green-and-gold matte dust jacket (green tree, gold lettering, against a blue sky). The paper had soft, frayed edges and a row of tiny parallel tears at top and bottom that looked familiar. I had marked it up—both years earlier when I first wrote about it and later, when I wrote about it again. The older marks were in ink, the newer ones in pencil.
But Griff loses the book, and she thinks that he has done it unconsciously on purpose. He says he found it compelling, and that it made him cry. When it finally turns up in the office of Jean, a director of a drop-in center for the homeless, she says she is reading it and doesn’t want to give it back yet. Griff, the president of the board, left it in her office when he went in to use her phone. And he needs to recover the book so he can finish it, but mainly because it has his wife’s notes in it.
Because of the book, they invite Jean to dinner and she becomes a family friend. She is fascinated by the complexity of Griff and Olive’s relationship. She sees that Olive is angry at Griff, and Jean is angry, too, because Griff keeps trying to block new services at the drop-in center, particularly a program that will allow the homeless to sign up for private rooms for an hour or two during the day. Jean and Olive become friends, and Jean sides against Griff on some of the center’s issues. Will the marriage thrive or break? And, dangerously, for Jean is the one radical at the dinner table, she begins to date an inconsiderate younger man, Zak, a doctor Olive’s daughter used to date, and who Jean knows has the ability of causing great grief.
Oddly, Griff was a radical in the ’60s, and believes his own use of a gun at a protest inspired Helen’s using a gun at a bank robbery. He feels guilty, but Olive insists that there was no connection, that Helen had long been involved in radical politics before she knew Griff. And Olive has her own guilt: she spent hours talking about Helen to Valerie when Valerie was doing research for the book. And Valerie sold out Helen, Olive, and Griff.
The compulsive readability of Conscience is slightly reminiscent of two other poltical page-turners, Marge Piercy’s Vida, a fast-paced novel about a ’60s radical who goes underground, and Doris Lessing’s A Ripple from the Storm, a brilliant autobiographical novel about Martha Quest’s involvement with a small communist group during World War II in Southern Rhodesia. Lessing brilliantly captures the mix of excitement and exhaustion: the intensity and dreariness, the analysis and self-criticism, and the daily meetings (usually more than one) at which there is much talk, little action.
I thought about so much when I read Conscience. There are a few faults: occasionally the writing is choppy, but that fits the flexible form of the book. Can a book be great because of the intensity of the content and history? I think it can, and that is the case here.