"In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination."—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
Jerome Charyn, "one of the most important writers in American literature" (Michael Chabon), continues his exploration of American history through fiction with The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, hailed by prize-winning literary historian Brenda Wineapple as a "breathtaking high-wire act of ventriloquism." Channeling the devilish rhythms and ghosts of a seemingly buried literary past, Charyn removes the mysterious veils that have long enshrouded Dickinson, revealing her passions, inner turmoil, and powerful sexuality. The novel, daringly written in first person, begins in the snow. It's 1848, and Emily is a student at Mount Holyoke, with its mournful headmistress and strict, strict rules. Inspired by her letters and poetry, Charyn goes on to capture the occasionally comic, always fevered, ultimately tragic story of her life-from defiant Holyoke seminarian to dying recluse.
The inner life of Emily Dickinson was creatively effulgent, psychologically pained and emotionally ambivalent, as reported by Charyn, who here inhabits the mind of one of America's most famous poets. Charyn parrots the cadent voice of razor-sharp Dickinson, beginning in her years as the tempestuous young lyricist who aims to "choose my words like a rapier that can scratch deep into the skin." From the first page, witty Emily harbors conflicted feelings toward her female status: her esteemed father, the town's preeminent lawyer, adores Emily at home for her intellectual companionship, but also dismisses her formal education as "a waste of money & a waste of time," and it's easy to see how Emily's poetic instincts are born from the shifting sensations of comfort and resentment brought by a childhood spent "serenading Father with my tiny Tambourine." Emily's growth is brightly drawn as she progresses from petulant child to a passionate "woman with a ferocious will" and finally to that notorious recluse. However, while this vivid impersonation is a stylistic achievement, it's also confining and limits higher revelations.
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Emily Dickinson as You've Never Seen Her
I loved this book from its first page. I was immediately pulled into Emily Dickinson's world, and there I could see, think and feel as she did.
I read this novel twice through; once at breakneck speed, holding my breath as each chapter opened a new window into Emily's heart. I kept a more leisurely pace, with a collection of her poetry close at hand. I grew up and old with Emily. I understood her, what drove her to write, but so rarely share, her poems.
Before this novel, I would not have believed it possible for me to identify so powerfully with my favorite poet. It is an unexpected gift, like opening a time capsule.
Even putting to one side Emily's poetry, the novel is a great read; a beautifully written story, astonishing plot twists and turns. The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is sensual and romantic, with a cast of characters who will stay with you. But the story always bring you back to Emily's own words.
If you love poetry, if you love Emily Dickinson, if you love passionate women's novels or romantic historical fiction, you must read The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.