“Some things sneak up on you when you aren’t even looking and spread themselves out across several years’ time; other things change right away, inside the space of a single heartbeat.”
Carol Dunbar’s debut novel, The Net Beneath Us, opens with a heartbreaking tragedy. While in the forest cutting trees to build his home, there is an accident, and Silas, father of two and husband to Elsa, is mortally injured. He will survive for a time, if you can call it that; Elsa will bring him home to die. But he doesn’t die. Not immediately. He is in a persistent vegetative state – one tube leading in and another leading out. It is heart-wrenching for Elsa to see Silas in this state – this lifeless state – when he has been brimming with life and love and plans for their family. His dream was to live off-grid in the forest he loved, building their house from trees he felled.
“He was holding on for them, Elsa knew. Holding on to all the things he left undone, the house he was building and the well that wasn’t dug.”
Silas found solace in the trees. A tree never takes anything from another tree, he told Elsa. “They stretch out until their tips sense the leaves of another tree, and then they stop.” The forest was his friend; the trees spoke to him, their deep roots and branches reaching to the heavens teaching him something about staying and leaving.
Elsa couldn’t leave. After Silas dies, she is determined to continue his dream. He comes to her in dreams –whole and smiling and wearing a white shirt effervescent in the sunlight, his chest the barrel of a tree trunk. Everything is hard work here: chopping the wood that heats their home, cranking up the generator, washing clothes, caring for children – all in spite of – or maybe because of her grief. Everyday she goes after the woodpile with a vengeance, letting grief and anger fuel the chopping and splitting.
Elsa was not born of this life. Her family had lived in Switzerland. She’d gone to art school. She’d inherited money after her parents’ death and she’d planned to use it to finish school or maybe to fund a gallery exhibition. She’d had plans, but everything changed when she met and fell in love with Silas. They’d had two children and she’d gladly traded her dreams for his. And then he died. Like the heartwood that binds together two halves of a tree, she was bound to this land, to this dream. Before Silas, she’d always solved her problems by leaving. She needed to stay, to learn whatever it was that the land had to teach her.
Dunbar’s writing is evocative and as lush as the forest. Structured in four segments: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer, we watch Elsa flail and falter and then grow in strength and confidence as each season passes. THE NET BENEATH US is about the promises we make and keep – to ourselves and to others – and the profound work of grief – how it cleaves us in two and yet, we live, allowing the days and months and years that pass bind us back together, the two halves of a split trunk like the before times and the after times, joined in the middle by the heartwood.
“Grief isn’t just about the person you lost,” Dunbar writes, “it’s about losing the person who you were when you were with them, and who you go on to become.”
THE NET BENEATH US can be preordered today from your favorite bookseller. Highly recommended for fans of Maggie O’Farrell, Nichole Kraus, and Ann Patchett. Listen to my interview with Carol Dunbar September 22 at 7:00 pm on Superior Reads, WTIP Radio, 90.7 Grand Marais, or stream it from the web at wtip.org.