Late in the novel, The Hidden Letters of Velta B, authored by Gina Ochsner, the narrator (Inara) reflects back on one of the many moments of loss and suffering in her life, her family, her community. She remembers the words of her mother in response to that suffering.
“Life is a series of entrances and exits. It’s just a door that opens and closes. And we are the hinges bearing the weight.”
That is also a wonderful description of Ochsner’s novel. I first encountered the Oregon author as an award-winning short story writer. Her 2009 collection, The Necessary Grace to Fall (winner of the Flannery O’Conner Award for Short Fiction), captivated me at once, and so I followed that by reading her 2010 novel, The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight. I was equally enthralled. Her prose is sharp, concise, and weighty, and her characters are real and compelling.Ochsner’s style has often been placed in the strange category of magical realism. Her settings are modern, real, and recognizable, and one of her great strengths is capturing everyday life (though often in settings unfamiliar to most American readers). Blended in with the realism, however, is a touch of the surreal: an apartment complex being swallowed up by the earth, a corpse wandering around harassing the same group of persons he had harassed as a living being, and so on.
The Hidden Letters of Velta B might still be placed in the category of magical realism, but the emphasis is on the realism. The story takes place in a small village in modern-day (i.e. post-Soviet) Latvia. The primary hint of the magical or surreal in the story is the character of the narrator’s son, Maris, who was born with extraordinarily large and furry ears, and has the ability to hear all sorts of things outside the range of normal human hearing, like the shifts in polar ice, or the longings of eels, or—most importantly—the voices and confessions of the dead.
The book combines the best of Ochsner as a short story writer and a novelist. It is a series of vignettes or scenes (little short stories) in the life of the narrator, Inara, as she tells laying on her bed dying of cancer, relaying to her large-eared son the story of her life—which turns out to be the story of the lives of her mother and father and grandparents, especially her maternal grandmother and titular character, Velta B, who shows up in the story primarily through her mysterious letters. Mysterious, that is, until the very end of the tale (which I won’t spoil).
Yet, all the little anecdotes and memories are intricately connected in a cohesive and beautiful narrative as the “series of entrances and exits” bringing the reader through Inara’s life. We follow through the opening and closing of doors. We see also what tremendous weight is born by the hinges, “all the aches our flesh is heir to”, as Inara tells Maris, who is weighed down by the sorrow and the ache of living.
But the stories also serve as signs of hope and healing, even as they reveal how great the weight of that ache is. Two lines near the end of the tale explain both the importance of telling stories, and perhaps also the importance of Maris’ magical ability to hear what nobody else can hear. “This is the power of word worked through the body,” Inara narrates. “This is why we must tell our stories, sing our songs. This is how we forgive and are forgiven. Is it enough? you asked me often. Of what use are our lives, our stories? What use to tell them in a world going deaf?”
This is the wisdom Inara passes on to Maris. And a little later, she closes with her final words of advice, rooted in that wisdom. “You have asked for advice and this is it. Let us weave our dark parables; let us bury them deeply and firmly, pushing them down to an unshakable foundation, a bedrock of truth. Let us build on that. Let us tell our stories and sing our songs. Let us baptize our world in words.”
This is precisely what Ochsner has done. She has baptized our world with her words.
Matthew Dickerson has published several novels and works of creative non-fiction as well as literary studies of mythopoeic literature. His recent medieval historic fiction includes the novel The Rood and the Torc: the Song of Kristinge, Son of Finn. Illengond, the third volume of his three-volume fantasy novel begin with The Gifted and The Betrayed is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017. Dickerson is a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont.