But what lasts, after all? What stays the same through the generations? Boundaries shift, refugees die or flee with what they can carry, the waters slowly fill in behind the dams, and what was once there is lost forever, except in dreams and memories. – From The World Below, page 268-
Sue Miller’s 7th novel – The World Below – begins in Maine in the early part of the twentieth century with Georgia Rice. Georgia’s mother has recently died from cancer, and Georgia – being the eldest child of three siblings – steps into the role of caring for her father and younger brother and sister. But an unexpected diagnosis of tuberculosis sends her to a sanitarium which will change her life in unexpected ways.
Fast forward to the present day where the reader is introduced to Georgia’s 50-something year old granddaughter, Catherine Hubbard who has returned to her grandparent’s home to start over again after a recent divorce. Catherine discovers her grandmother’s diaries, and begins to piece together Georgia’s life.
What I felt, I think, as I read and reread the diaries, was that I was somehow coming to know her, to understand what her deeper thoughts were under the quotidian of the surface. What I felt was that understanding these slender books would somehow let me piece together too what lay under the later loving surface of my grandparents’ lives together. -From The World Below, page 123-
She discovers her own life has paralleled her grandmother’s in inexplicable ways. We learn (through flash backs) that Catherine’s mother, mentally ill and fragile, dies when Catherine is only a teenager, and Catherine briefly goes to live with her grandparents – who are now living in Vermont. During this time in her life, she senses a deep undercurrent of old resentments and misunderstandings which lie beneath the surface of her grandparent’s marriage. Later, as an adult, Catherine starts her own family … and suffers through two painful divorces, leaving her to wonder what her future will bring.
The World Below is a multi-layered, non-linear novel which slips back and forth between the generations. It is a novel about the subtle power struggles within a marriage, the loss of childhood innocence, the re-discovery of self as one moves through the years, and the tenuous hold we have on the past.
I must admit to the novel being slow going for me and a little confusing (with all the flash backs and change in point of view) at the start; but as I made my way through Georgia and Catherine’s lives, their stories began to interest me, and I was slowly pulled into the story. Miller writes with great depth and understanding of her characters – who are filled with the human flaws we all share. Her writing is honest and searing, forcing the reader to examine her own life while sharing the lives of the characters. I have enjoyed Miller’s previous books, and this was no exception.