'The Storm at the Door' challenging, but worth it

Associated Press
This image provided by Random House shows the book cover for "The Storm at the Door," by Stefan Merrill Block. (AP Photo/Random House)
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This image provided by Random House shows the book cover for "The Storm at the Door," by Stefan Merrill …

"The Storm at the Door" (Random House), by Stefan Merrill Block: Katharine and Frederick Merrill married young and impulsively in the early 1940s. Over the next two decades, Katharine discovers her husband's depression and problems with alcohol and worries about his mental health, but remains dedicated to the promise of her marriage's early days. That is, until a wild night in 1962 leads to Frederick's arrest, and Katharine is persuaded to commit Frederick to Mayflower, a psychiatric hospital.

"The Storm at the Door" is based on author Stefan Merrill Block's grandparents and these lost years of their marriage. It opens in 1989 with his grandmother, in the early stages of Alzheimer's, burning the letters his grandfather wrote from the asylum. Block takes these letters, now lost, and commutes them into something else: "another place, not quite real, outside or within what happened. Another place, in which we can all be together, all be present to explain ourselves to one another as we cannot in all other places."

Not being bound by fact allows Block to imagine how his grandfather might have treated his confinement as an exercise in creativity, and in this he is joined by other men precariously balanced between genius and madness. Professor Schultz, for example, is working on transliterating the sounds that have surrounded him since childhood, a language that only he can hear and understand. Robert Lowell is also there, another inhabitant of this overlapping space between fact and fiction.

Block also chronicles how Frederick's incarceration — and there are times at which it does seem as though Frederick and the other patients are being held against their will, at the mercy of the doctors who want to use them to further their own research — affects Katharine, dealing with the social stigma of her husband's illness, and watching the money needed to raise their four daughters drain away.

Block's second novel is a remarkable work of literary fiction, a beguiling look at the interstices of language and sanity, memory and history. It is also a difficult book, not just for its portrait of a frustrating era in psychiatric treatment, but also in its structure. As Frederick and Katharine are isolated — from each other, from society — the narrative is mostly internal, philosophical, and this can be a challenge to get through. The rewards for doing so, however, are significant.

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Online:

http://www.stefanmerrillblock.com

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