Charlotte Forbes,
The Good Works of Ayela Linde
(Arcade, 2006)

Reading The Good Works of Ayela Linde made me realize how the people who read the first books of Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty or Flannery O'Connor must have felt. It's the thrill of discovering a major writer at the very beginning so that you can enjoy the immediate gift of her talents while anticipating how they will unfold and grow in the future.

Charlotte Forbes is that good. In this book, she takes on the technical problem of the novel as a collection of stories. It's a difficult thing to pull off; most efforts fail because the short stories wind up being warped to fit the novel's concerns or the novel as a whole doesn't quite cohere because the stories won't let it.

Forbes pulls it off. Her stories are fine and, because they are used to tell the story of the effects the central character, Ayela Linde, has on the people of her Mexican village, the focus is tight enough to make the book work as a novel.

Good Works covers 70 years, detailing the entire life of the central character. We see her through the eyes of various villagers -- the men who had crushes on her, the women who were jealous of her and the ones who resent her position in the town, among others. As each person's story comes out, we get a more complete portrait of the title character.

What is wonderful about this novel is the understatement. The minds of the narrators of the stories are penetrated so that we get their thoughts, but never the central character's. We know her from her behavior and from her effect on other people. No one, not even the reader, can fully penetrate her mystery. This is a subtle novel, where the touch of a hand on a shoulder, a mundane sentence spoken, can constitute a quiet explosion which clarifies a destiny and changes a life.

It centers on Iyela's good works, which like all good works, don't always work out that well. Her final good work, though, will have you pondering for a long time after you've put the book down. You will not easily forget this book and you will be anticipating the author's next one.

by Michael Scott Cain
2 December 2006

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