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A Ship Made of Paper - Book of the Month

by Scott Spencer

Passion, lust, racial tension, infidelity, cataclysmic storms and mutilating accidents – all behind the tidy picket fences of New England. Reading A SHIP MADE OF PAPER is like watching a film, maybe one by Ang Lee: Spencer imagines so vividly and writes so convincingly that the reader is helplessly drawn into the gut-churning treadmill of desire and betrayal in which his characters are trapped.

Daniel leaves his high-powered New York lawyer’s practice after he is seriously beaten up by thugs as payback for an unsuccessful law suit. With his partner, Kate, a successful novelist, and her four-year-old daughter, Ruby, he moves to Leyden on the Hudson River, where he settles into safe and comfortable small town life. Ensconced in an old farmhouse with acres of land, Daniel muddles along in his humdrum rural practice with one criminal case for every ten real estate closings. He also acts as principal carer for Ruby, since Kate, cool, clever and elegant, finds her work and the bottle more enticing than the duties of motherhood. However, when we meet him, Daniel is already developing an obsession for Iris, a black post-graduate student and the mother of one of Ruby’s friends. Like the unseasonal snow storm that wreaks havoc across the county, this love affair lays waste to the illusion of suburban peace and contentment.

With complex, believable characters and a rattle-along story, A SHIP MADE OF PAPER is a terrific read, but it is also a very thoughtful exploration of the madness of desire as well as attitudes towards race. Its strength lies in the fact that there are no messages imposed on the narrative but, by portraying true-to-life behaviour in all its inconsistency and contrariness, Spencer makes us re-examine our own preconceptions. For example, Kate, who casts a clear-sighted but steely eye on proceedings, realises that Iris’s blackness is a part of what draws Daniel to her:

‘...All those blues records, all that soul music, and even gospel music, the man listens to Sam Cooke singing about Jesus and gets tears in his eyes, though he himself has no more belief in Christ than he has in the Easter bunny. He must have been preparing for this all along. Getting the soundtrack down for his big movie spectacular. The story of his life taking shape, the story of himself as a great romantic hero, crossing the color line. How passe! How pathetic! As if getting involved with an African-American could be the solution to his problems. As if it would give him something to believe in. The poor little unloved son suddenly draping himself in three hundred years of another people’s history, the invisible man taking shape beneath the swaddling of black bandages.
“Do I have time for a shower?” Daniel asks....’

This novel is by no means flawless (there is sometimes a strong sense of a deus ex machina at work, for example) but it is nevertheless brilliant. It was a word-of-mouth recommendation – so insistent that it went to the top of my pile of books to read – and, although it was published a couple of years ago, it had scant notice at the time and we agreed that it would make a great book group read. Spencer is a fantastic writer and it’s a book that demands to be read and discussed.

Read our interview with Scott Spencer.

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