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Maxine Clair 

Daunt Books Publishing, 2023


Review by Franklin Nelson


‘We heard it from our friends, who got it from their near-eye-witness grandmothers and their must-be-psychic neighbor ladies, that when she was our same age, our teacher, Miss October Brown, watched her father fire through his rage right on into her mother’s heart.’ 

Thus begins Maxine Clair’s beautifully told and conceived debut novel, Rattlebone. By its end, we realise that the first sentence told us much about what was to come – in terms of perspective, and the role that community, gossip and the family-ties-that-bind will play. Yet debut feels like the wrong word. For, as the writer Okechukwu Nzelu notes in his thoughtful introduction, this autobiographical bildungsroman scooped prizes after its release in Clair’s native United States in 1994. Only now has it been published in the UK.

Set in its author’s home state of Kansas on the cusp of the end of race-based segregation, Rattlebone tracks Irene Wilson as she comes of age in the eponymous town that is home to her family and, like any other town, to intrigue and idiosyncratic characters. Born to parents whom she describes neatly as being ‘on opposite ends of the same track’, Irene’s first impression is one of isolation. Her mother has ‘steadily grown a baby inside her, aggravating my father in the process’. The result is that whenever the two adults talked, ‘they talked about the baby. Whenever they didn’t talk, it was about the baby too. For me they had only silence.’ 

It gradually emerges that Irene’s father has had an affair with her teacher, Miss October Brown, ‘a stylish and slender dark woman with a camel’s prance and wild hair’. Gradually, details become clearer in the classroom, where gossip spreads, and later in the wider community, where married couple Lydia and Thomas Pemberton are split about what to do with their lodger when they learn she is pregnant. Indeed, how we and the characters find out about what goes on in Rattlebone is as important as what goes on. Clair deftly handles the transition from the first-person perspective of Irene, a child who depends more on instinct and intuition, to the perspectives of adults, who know more facts, and back again. 

If Brown is a complex character, she is not alone. After his devoted wife’s death, Thomas begins an affair with Wanda, a teenager, to the disappointment of his local congregation. Meanwhile, on a visit to the ‘tourist home’ where her new friend Geraldine lives, Irene looks through a keyhole to see her mother in the company of a male stranger. Amid these emotional and social disturbances, and the collective tragedy of a plane crash, our protagonist finds comfort in friendship, music and her own academic progress.  

Clair has a great gift for evoking an atmosphere of beauty in the novel, as in the ‘almost-perfume from crocuses’ and the ‘perhaps-violet six-o’clock sky’ that presage spring. As Rattlebone ends, Irene is entering adulthood and independence, but amid a fresh family breakdown, with her father set to move out for a second time. We cannot know what her future holds, but know that she graduates from school on a day that ‘wore its widest blue sky and wrapped itself in the scent of a million flowerings’. Surely a sign that, after everything, she will be just fine.