Child as Mother to the Woman: Catherine Gammon’s China Blue

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What a breath of fresh air to live in a world of fiction, to believe in fiction again: where the lie evokes the truth, where the writer is forced to arrest the reader, to create and sustain a momentum, page after page managing a credibility, establishing in the mind of the reader a moment that purports to have never actually happened. Instead, the reader is intoxicated by language or plot or invested in character to an extent that allows the reader to surrender, to leave her world and enter into the world of the fiction—and then to reflect back, of course, and somehow see her world anew.

In this book we are taken by all three: language, plot, character.

The title, China Blue, catches your eye—and you think that this will perhaps be a novel that takes place there, in China. Or maybe you think it’s a book about a painter—a better guess, as the eponymous character is indeed a painter, and there’s a photographer named Adam, and there are those to whom one might assign the artist’s temperament, including Holly and her precocious thirteen-year old daughter Tess, who is often found sketching. Towards the end of the book, there’s a painter for whom Tess models. But China Blue is an assumed name for someone whose painting career was thwarted by a freak accident from which the painter never recovered. We find this out slowly, piece by piece, which is the way we find out almost everything in this book, including the fact that Adam is obstructed in his career as well, and that Holly’s focus is split between her roles of mother and lover. As these characters experience each other, we hear about one character through the eyes of the others. Early on, China Blue says this about Holly: “She said she is three people: herself, first child, survivor; her brother, a year and a half younger, born dead; her sister, three years younger, alive only fourteen hours.”

What most of these characters have in common aside from their convergence on Cape Cod is alcohol. They drink to escape; they drink as if it were an occupation. They drink together and alone, and they drink to excess. This is a book of many troubled, suffering characters looking to reinvent themselves. There’s a fellow slightly older than Tess who goes by the self-given name of Spider. There is the card reader, Katie, originally from California, who turns tricks but has read her Wuthering Heights, has had aspirations and traveled to Europe—but who has also been deemed an unsuitable mother and had her son taken away from her. Then, of course, there’s Holly’s lover, the would-be painter who is certainly not the hero but whose actions provide the catalyst of the novel.

Early on in this book, the teenaged Tess is molested by her mother’s lover, by China Blue. Or so she says. We hear about it from Tess, but neither the reader nor Tess knows what to make of it. A little later on, she and her friends discuss this experience of hers, but it’s a private conversation until Katie, the so-called December woman, reads Tess’s tarot cards, and the secret finds its way to others. A confrontation occurs and sets the plot in motion.

Written in multiple voices, this book reads like a fever dream, where we enter a modernist world, the fractured world of the early 1980s, post-Vietnam. Although we are given access to the full stories of no fewer than six characters, Tess’s voice infiltrates all of the others. Those others are adults: sensitive intellectuals, these cast out, rootless, carelessly destructive characters, not unlike Hemingway’s Lost Generation or Kerouac’s Beats, all of them on the run in one way or another, suffering and self-medicating and getting caught in the crosshairs of American history.

There is a puzzle aspect to the story that fits with its theme of brokenness. We put the pieces together, pieces that come with language filtered by dreams and secondhand stories, by conversation that offers up a history or a piece of the world that helps make sense of a current state of affairs. Here’s Katie telling her story to Adam: “And my mother loved that cat better than she ever loved me. I didn’t fit the décor. I wasn’t part of her wardrobe or one of her props… The perfect ice mother.” Or Tess taking up the narration of her mother’s story, making it clear that she knows this story because of how many times she’s likely heard her mother tell it:

…her ribs—that part of her body that had always stayed thin, except when she was pregnant with me, and even then absorbed me into her somehow so that the short smock dresses she wore, a style in 1967, were enough to conceal her condition and riding the crowded bus to her job in San Francisco while my father went to Oakland to demonstrate against the draft, she had to thrust her hips deliberately forward if she wanted the young men in business suits reading the Wall Street Journal to realize they were sitting while a pregnant woman stood.

And so the reader of this novel abruptly exits the paralytic present, our global pandemic-cum-domestic terrorism, and enters a peripatetic world of characters caught in a struggle for meaning, and most importantly a young girl’s struggle to create her own self, to envision a self outside the suffering of her mother or her mother’s lovers. It is a post-idealist time in the dual settings of New York City and Provincetown, both coastal cities, both cities that take in people without roots, both cities you can run to and wrestle with yourself and begin anew, create a temporary life. Both cities with harbors, cities that serve as safe harbors, where all the characters who matter in this book have history.

One of the first things we learn about China Blue is that he’s one of the Cape Cod locals, that his father disappeared out to sea on a ship that never returned, not too long before his older brother returned home from Vietnam in a coffin. The violence, along with his discovery that the government had deliberately mutilated paintings he’d shipped overseas—an apparent “mistake” for which they later apologize—has thrown China Blue into a darkness that manifests in the multiple voices in his head. His narrative progresses through three voices, a confused and splintered story he tells himself.

Tess’s story, however, is the nexus around which the book turns. The plot follows her quest to become the hero of her own story after a confrontation places in peril the mother-daughter relationship that is at the heart of this novel, the one for which the daughter is paying too high a price. Rather than castigate this mother, or any mother whose failures arguably set up their sons and daughters for failure, Gammon simply paints the world. And this world is more than a generation removed from the #MeToo movement, before “cancel culture,” before the vulnerability of a young girl could take center stage. Rather than Holly, it is Tess who will come to terms with what happens. It’s Tess who will take up the reins of her life and set in motion a sea change in the lives of the adults. One thinks of the Wordsworth, but female: the child who is mother to the woman.

We enter the stories the characters tell themselves, their shattered worlds. Holly’s former lover Adam, sent to El Salvador as a reporter, becomes undone by a photograph he takes of women’s bodies torn by the revolution. We find out later that he was also a witness and survivor of a massacre. He drinks and he travels, much like China Blue, the two of them foils for each other, both of them Holly’s lovers, both wrestling with philosophy, with love, with history, both of them crumbling but crumbling differently. You could call them Boomers, but they are not OK Boomers—they are former hippies, the rebels whose cause is mired: China Blue is obsessed with the Berrigan brothers; Adam is obsessed with Nijinsky’s diaries.

But even in their suffering, even if they fail to be role models of parents or lovers, they extend themselves, and we see them enact simple gestures that move us, that strike us as authentic. The card reader singles out Tess on the street. Spider confronts the adults, and later, even China Blue will force himself past his own downhill spiral to help Holly. These characters, rounded and unsentimentalized, manage to get under our skin. We watch as they manifest familial bonds with each other, create something like blended families, all during a time before computers and cell phones, before pandemic and masks, before 9/11, before Donald J. Trump and his army of would-be executioners, when the world could still let you down, could still put you to the test—and when your resources did not include a handy pocket-sized emergency call out to the galaxy for information or help.

From the start of China Blue, it’s a brutal world we enter. It’s no spoiler to say that the generating action happens to Tess in the first chapter, almost on the first page. It is not until halfway through the book, by which time we have a handle on the cast of characters, that the corresponding reaction occurs: Tess leaves home. As for what happens after that, you’ll have to read the book to know.

But prepare yourself for no easy answers, no easy target to place the blame in this little world where I’m reminded of what it is we love about novels—the invitation and the seduction, the promise that must permeate the language. Maybe there will be some information to be plucked, but we are not reading to stock our pantries with knowledge. We are reading for these characters whose plights have engaged us, and how they change with the plot’s turn, how they recall to us what it means to be human, what we sacrifice when we take up the reins of our own lives, and how we forgive.

Geri Lipschultz has published in the New York Times, Ms. Magazine, the Toast, Black Warrior Review, College English and others. Her work appears in Pearson’s Literature: Introduction to Reading and Writing and in Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II. She teaches writing at Hunter College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. Geri was awarded a Creative Artists in Public Service grant from New York State. Her one-woman show "Once Upon the Present Time" was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr. More from this author →