Lawrence Wayne Markert, Roanoke Times
“Centuries of June,” Keith Donohue’s third novel, begins as a mystery, employing the convention of the corpse narrating the events that have led to its demise. The classic movie “Sunset Boulevard,” with William Holden face down in the swimming pool while still narrating the events that landed him there, comes to mind.
Donohue’s novel, however, rapidly expands beyond the borders of a traditional mystery and proves to be a wonderful and cleverly integrated mix of mystery, fantasy, comedy and literary fiction.
The mystery story serves as the foreground. The narrator, Jack, awakens to find himself with a hole in his head face down on his bathroom floor, the blood from his wound seeping into the grout, “which will be murder to clean,” he thinks.
He discovers that someone else is in the bathroom with him, an old man, perhaps the ghost of his dead father. He later concludes that the specter might be Samuel Beckett and ponders whether “Waiting for Godot” may be the paradigm for his own story. He recalls that he had come home that evening to discover seven bicycles in his yard and eight naked women in his bed, one of whom he seems to remember.
The old man serves as Jack’s guide and protector, the Virgil to his Dante, as the first incident after he awakens quickly reveals. An unknown woman, “a presence,” had entered the bathroom, tries to clobber Jack with a club but is disarmed by his protector. She is one of the eight from his bed and now begins to tell her story.
With this twist, the novel transforms from mystery to a collection of women’s stories spanning 500 years of history, each with fable-like title — the next is “The Woman Who Swallowed a Whale”— and with prose styles appropriate to the historical period depicted. As with fables, each story has a moral, and as they accumulate, it becomes clear that Jack is implicated, guilty of actions in the past that motivate the women to seek revenge.
These stories are wonderfully evoked, combining a keen sense of historical detail with what might be described as magical visual effects conjured to accompany the tale.
Jane, the woman telling the second story, creates a miniature sea scene in the bathroom sink to illustrate her narrative of shipwreck. Alice, who tells of her life during the Salem witch trials, performs magic tricks throughout the chapter.
We recognize that each of the women forces Jack to confront his various reincarnated selves, his past sins.
This “ordinary day in June” has become centuries, and Jack undergoes a form of spiritual purgation.
Donohue, who has studied Irish literature, used W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Stolen Child” as inspiration for his novel of that name. Here he seems to merge the Marx Brothers’ comedy of “A Night at the Opera” and the quest for meaning in Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” with the possibility for renewal depicted in Yeats’ short play “Purgatory.”
The final story, told by Jack’s current girl friend about her unhappy relationships with two men, including Jack, advances the cycles begun with the first story. Sita, named for the incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi, evokes Hindu mysticism and especially the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana.
What began as a murder mystery ends with more complex questions, bigger mysteries. We wonder what Jack has learned from his centuries of June?