A Gate at the Stairs is a story of youth, disillusionment, family love and racial prejudice. Telling the story of Tassie, a student in the Midwest town of Troy, this novel is written by an American and is very much about America. To truly enjoy it a British reader must be prepared to believe unquestioningly the details and prejudices of American small town society and the humour that goes with it. In this respect, A Gate at the Stair may not be the easiest of books to read, but once the culture shift has taken place, there is some beautiful writing and an unusual and gripping story to be found beneath.
When we meet Tassie, she has left her provincial home and is leading a fairly bohemian student life in Troy. She seems to drift through her university course with a strange mixture of helplessness and amazement; signing up for classes as diverse as Sufism, Soundtracks to War Movies and Wine Tasting - all without any plan at all. Her love interest is the enigmatic and handsome Brazilian Reynaldo - another student in her Intro to Sufism class, and she drifts helplessly into a relationship with him much in the same way as she drifted into the Sufism class in the first place. To earn some money, Tassie gets a job for a sophisticated middle class couple who are in the process of adopting a baby. Tassie immediately becomes emotionally linked with their quest to find the perfect child, and when a beautiful black toddler is offered, she finds that she comes to love the child. The engaging little girl is called Mary-Emma, and as her adoptive parents become more involved with their business lives, Tassie finds that she is playing the role of surrogate mother to the little girl, experiencing at first hand the middle class shock of the inhabitants of Troy as they try to cover the prejudices that they feel towards this black child of a white family. However, as with all good novels, all is not what it seems and the people who Tassie believes that she knows well are hiding a dark secret. As the novel moves towards its shocking denouement, everybody who Tassie knows and loves seems to change and Tassie is forced to grow up very quickly.
The book plays out in three simultaneous strands; Tassie's relationship with her family back at the farm; her relationship with Reynaldo; and most importantly, her relationship with the tiny toddler Mary-Emma. All of these strands form the background to what could easily be simply seen as a coming of age novel. Tassie narrates her story in the first person from the perspective of an adult now in her mid twenties, and her sharp and cynical eye plots the path to her current maturity. At the same time American society and the establishment are anaylsed and questioned, from the reaction to 9/11 and the racist fear of Arab looking foreigners, to the softly subtle racism of the white middle class - and this is what gives the novel a depth that makes it far more than a story about growing up.
I found the voice of Tassie to be a very engaging one; her wry cynicism, her forthright feminism and the inner voice that provides a constant and amusing commentary on the events that are happening all around her. At the same time, her devotion to her family and her love of the farm and the countryside where she was brought up shine through as an understated subtext. Some of the passages where she describes summer in the fields around her father's farm contain almost lyrical prose, and completely transported me to that place of baking earth, soaring songbirds and spiky, knarled orchards.
Lorrie Moore's writing is unbelievably skillful and full of humour; some of the scenes were so well observed that they made me laugh out loud on several occasions. Equally there were some passages that brought me neat to tears; not only the credible and moving relationship between Tassie and Mary-Emma, but also Tassie's relationship with her family. My only complaint about this book is that Tassie's directionless path through life was taken a little too far, so that the reader sometimes wondered exactly where the story was going. This slight lack of pace and plot is what makes an otherwise outstanding novel get only 4 stars.
Lorrie Moore is an American writer who was born in 1957 and who is mainly known for her short stories. A Gate at the Stairs is her second novel, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
A Gate at the Stairs was published by Faber and Faber in 2009 and has 322 pages.