Desert Isle Keeper
I Know This Much is True
I know this much is true – all 897 pages of this book are incredible. By no means an easy or even pleasant read, it is simply an important read that will impel you to keep turning the pages to figure out what Wally Lamb’s inventive imagination will next devise. This book is so good nearly every other book I’ve read pales in comparison. It is certainly better than author Lamb’s debut novel, She’s Come Undone, which received raves from everyone from Oprah to my next-door neighbor. Reading this book forced me to take stock of my other favorite books – they simply can’t compare.
I Know This Much Is True is Dominick Birdsey’s journey, and it is one fraught with insanity, pain, hatred, and love. As the journey begins, his identical twin brother Thomas has cut off his hand at the local library to purge the sins of the world in the weeks just prior to the Kuwaiti war. Thomas is a paranoid schizophrenic, and Dominick has been his brother’s keeper since their mother died of cancer.
The relationship between the two brothers is at the core of the story. Dominick meets with Thomas’ psychiatrist, first to help her understand Thomas, but soon he realizes he must understand and help himself. He is filled with anger and sorrow, over the loss of his mother, the loss of his infant daughter and subsequent divorce from the wife he still loves, and the strained relationship with the step-father who mistreated his mother, Thomas, and himself as they grew up.
Author Lamb weaves in and out of time like a master, and creates coincidences that allow characters and/or their descendants to be a part of Dominick’s family history for three generations. When he discovers his mother is dying, for instance, Dominick takes her father’s Italian biography to have it translated as a death gift. The female scholar he hires absconds with it after he turns down her sexual overtures. Years later, after Dominick has severely injured himself falling off a ladder, the woman reappears in his life with the translated work. This, of course, is just in time for his intensive psychoanalysis, and part of it includes reading the biography of the very angry and narcissistic man who is his grandfather, with whom he shares the name of Dominick. And, in that biography, we learn that a Native American named Drinkwater shares his liquor with one of the elder Dominick’s brothers, causing him to be fired from his job. An entire dynasty of Drinkwaters play a continual role throughout the narrative, eventually affecting not only the elder Dominick, but his daughter and grandson in very intricate ways that will eventually become apparent.
There are many characters that appear throughout the book, and each of them is a complex and multi-faceted individual. Everyone has a history, and, like real people, they are a mixture of good and bad. The only character who seemed less fully fleshed was Dessa, Dominick’s ex-wife for whom he still pines.
I haven’t given a synopsis of the narrative because to do so would require pages upon pages, and would be futile in any case. The narrative jumps around from current time to the years when Dominick and his brother were growing up, takes a leap back in time to his grandfather’s story, and then goes back and forth between all three times at will. It is never confusing, never disconcerting, and the weaving together of the three allows the reader to feel what Dominick feels as he makes his way along his journey.
At the core of the story is Dominick’s connection with his twin – there is guilt over being the sane brother, pain over having to be responsible for his brother, sadness over feeling left out of his mother’s special relationship with Thomas, and fear of going insane himself. These are powerful emotions, and the author adds to this power by the characters Dominick surrounds himself with.
I’ve always been a fan of books where characters journey from the brink of insanity to the edge of light (another strong read along these lines is August by Judith Rossner). I Know This Much Is True adds so many other dimensions and surprises that I am in awe of Wally Lamb’s talent.