I posted recently about Nancy Pearl‘s lovely mention of The Half Brother on her show on KUOW Public Radio. As she was speaking of my book and the question of coincidence, she said, “Where would Sophocles be without coincidence?” (My publicist: “She compared Holly to Sophocles! We’ll take it!”) I’ve already mentioned that I’d had the Oedipus cycle in mind while writing. But I often do, apparently. I had completely forgotten about this piece written when The Swimming Pool came out, about this very same topic…perhaps I will always be writing about secrets, fate, and “coincidence.” Here it is, in full.
WHEN I WAS writing my debut novel, The Swimming Pool, and I needed to rest my brain from the logic of language and outlines, I sometimes thought instead in shapes. Specifically, I thought of concentric circles, and of their undulating movement: the ripple effect. One stone thrown in a pond (or, okay, a pool). I thought of how the circles continue and how, although they get fainter, it is hard sometimes to see where they stop.
In families, tragedy has a ripple effect, as do secrets—the motherlode for a novelist being, of course, a secret tragedy. Secrets are usually the result of shame. And tragedy itself, and the fear of fate it brings, can result in its own odd shame: I think there is still an ancient and unconscious prejudice that misfortune is somehow judgment from the gods.
Maybe for this reason, parents often keep secrets from their children. They are motivated by their own shame, but also by a fierce desire to protect. It’s a way of jousting with fate: one hopes that if a secret can stay hidden, a child can unwittingly escape. But secrets are toxic, and even if they are unspoken their presence is felt. Children, in particular, always know when things are not being said.
In The Swimming Pool, secrets abound. One of my protagonists, Jed, wonders if his father killed his mother, but can’t bear to say this out loud; his secret fear has paralyzed him. My other protagonist, Marcella, had an affair—with Jed’s father. Jed, in a wild, or not-so-wild, guess, confronts Marcella, years later, and exposes her secret—and then, joined by their grief and guilt, they fall into an affair of their own that, remarkably, will help them heal. While they are having this secret liaison, however, Jed’s sister, Callie, the mother of a newborn, is trying to keep her own desperate and sometimes violent thoughts hidden from everyone, including herself. And, all along, other questions loom: who killed Jed’s mother? Will they find out who threw that stone, and why, or will it stay a secret to them all—and what will the effects of this uncertainty be?
Readers have commented on the Oedipal overtones of Jed and Marcella’s relationship (although fear not, she does not turn out to be his mother). Recently, I finally read Oedipus Rex for the first time, and was amazed at how vital and gripping it is, twenty-four centuries later. And, in good postmodern style, I wondered about the role of secrets: what if Oedipus had known he was adopted? What if Jocasta, his mother/wife, had admitted she had not killed her son—the infant Oedipus—as the king had commanded, but had sent him off to secret safety? What if the witnesses to Oedipus’ murder of his father, who had known what they were seeing, hadn’t fled, taking their secret knowledge with them? Well, then, there would have been no play. Or there would have been a tragedy, but a smaller one. There would have been peace.
But, as Sophocles wrote, sounding like a twenty-first century psychologist, “The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.” He knew that secrets would always be a given. And then, as now, it’s the secrets—stones thrown into a pond whose ripples cannot be hidden—that beget story.