A Quiet Storm
Rachel Howzell Hall
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A Quiet Storm

Rachel Howzell Hall
Scribner
Paperback
249 pages
September 2002
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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It's a passionate title: A Quiet Storm. Readers may disagree as to whether Rachel Howzell Hall's depiction of a family overwhelmed by secrets is really an honest depiction of bipolar illness, but none will dispute the fact that many families do have buried secrets that eventually blossom into disaster.

Ever since the discovery of genetics, the western world has been faced with a scientific problem: Where does nature begin and nurture end? And how does spirituality fit into the mix? The unfortunate drawback of knowledge is that the bearer of knowledge must choose how to use it. This is the problem with Olivia, the matriarch of the Moore family. On the one hand, the genetic truth hovering over the family's head is that poor Nana has been locked away. It is possible that Arika, Olivia's daughter, has inherited the gene, but no one is allowed to discuss this possibility. Then there is the psychological truth: the Moore family is dysfunctional, bipolar gene or no bipolar gene, whether these dysfunctions are rooted in racism, Americanism, or poverty. Another complication is religion. The possibilities of this generally unstable and unpredictable family brew are endless. It's up to the enabling younger sister Anastasia to stabilize the family, even at the expense of her own happiness.

Author Rachel Howzell Hall has a good memory for the sixties, seventies and early eighties. The cultural fevers of those decades and their effect on a growing teen float humorously before the reader's eyes. But the book is not merely about growing up as a black: there is that quiet storm to think about.

Storms are everywhere mom and dad argue constantly; Arika has near breakdowns and obsessive behavior that the family attributes to "growing up." Occasionally, a visitor and possible boyfriend prospect will comment on the family dynamics, but for the most part, the lid is kept on the family secret until it explodes in murder and suicide.

The reader is sure to like Stacy, the enabler, although they may become exasperated at her extreme faithfulness to her sister. They may also challenge her depiction of the bipolar person as charismatic and magnetic. A certain dictum has always existed in the world, and it is this: the charismatic blessed types are usually doomed by mental illness. Or is it the other way around, that the mentally ill are often creative? Either way, this stereotype predominates A Quiet Storm, as it is prominent in most tragedy where only kings and the extremely beautiful, good and talented are worthy of our interest. (This certainly makes one feel pity for the poor nonfictional mentally ill person who has the ill luck to be ugly and untalented.) This is not to say that the author's detailed harrowing descriptions of Arika's problems don't touch the heart.

The book comes with a Study Guide for reading groups. The guide's first question points to the problem of religion in the characters' lives. The author adds a note in which she states passionately and unequivocably that religion alone will not help the mentally ill because God also heals through psychology. After reading these comments I feared I had read the wrong book. The author's passionate plea is for responsibility -- responsibility to truth and to family. And she portrays family secrets well. Quite often, the reader is tempted to ask: is all this mendacity worth it?

True, the family is religious. True, they have secrets, but at no time does this family ever undertake a concerted effort to get Arika healed by prayer and religion. Nor is the family secretive because they fear religious ostracism; they are secretive because they are afraid of the implications of genetics. The family rejects psychology after Arika's first suicide attempt, but it is a psychologist whose unprofessionalism is responsible for the book's final tragedy. And it is Arika herself who neglects her medicine under the delusion that she doesn't need them.

And so psychology stands out as the worst offender against Arika. Unless we count Arika herself. The business of diagnosing a tragedy is a thorny one. Tragedies climb on the back of other tragedies. Rachel Howzell Hall show clearly that a father's unfaithfulness, undiscerning religiosity, a possible cheating husband, and genetics are all pieces of the tragic puzzle. However, her comment in the Author's Notes seems to try to reduce the complexity to a truth that can be stated and discovered in an organized manner.

A Quiet Storm does the job a good family novel should do: it shows us the family secret and how a particular set of cultural or unfortunate genetic traits can create tragedy. Hall's research is abundant, digressing down pleasant paths but never, ever forsaking the main journey. The author's research on bipolar illness is copious and panoramic. She manages to weave in many theories without sounding clinical. And the book is quite funny.



© 2003 by Carole McDonnell for Curled Up With a Good Book


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