By Jonathan Sanchez, Blue Bicycle Books
Katie Crouch’s Abroad might be the most widely-recommendable book I’ve seen in 18 years as a bookseller. Like a dance party at an ancient castle, it’s contemporary and exciting and NOW, while at the same time sending out tendrils into the past, as Crouch breaks away to give us little glimpses into the ordinary life of women in Umbria through the millennia, ordinary lives which end bloodily, at the end of a blade.
Taking the flattened-out, scattered-to-rumor-and-madness story of the Amanda Knox trial, Crouch cleans out the guts and inserts her own, imbues it with completely new and fictional stuffing – the stuff of life: wine and Campari, mozzarella and pancetta, cocaine and designer drugs, Ovid and Patricia Highsmith, blood and cigarettes and mud and clay.
We all know kids who go abroad in college or their early 20s. Some just go to party, some manage to take it in stride, but for many, like Claire, the American in Crouch’s Abroad, going to Umbria is a chance to become someone new. You know people like this, they come back home, trying to keep the impression of France or Iceland or Brazil on them as long as they can.
Maybe they insist on calling soccer ‘football’, or their phones ‘mo-BILES.’ Maybe they have new opinions on coffee or what’s wrong with the American education system or what time to eat dinner. I’ve been this guy myself, more than once. (I still make my number sevens with a horizontal dash because I picked that up in Italy.)
In Abroad, Claire serves the role of the Amanda Knox figure — the Seattle college student who, while studying in Umbria, was accused of killing her Irish roommate Meredith Kercher. She’s a fun twist on the Ugly American. She shows up as a hot mess: badly died purple hair, ill-fitting clothes. Her first appearance is in the town piazza, getting felt up by a random Italian guy while smiling at the narrator, Taz. She has a bad sunburn, dirty fingernails, and “a large and hideous tattoo of a moose.”
Yet like Athena or Diana cloaking themselves in mortal garb, Claire, even from the get-go, is described as unmistakably beautiful, a fact which even her enemies don’t bother to deny (they find it ‘off-putting’). As the book progresses, this beauty, both spiritual and physical, continues to emerge, like a goddess emerging from inside a still-wet statue, the clay dripping off.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
So is this book about the Amanda Knox story? Claire seems a good bit different from the real Knox: she’s from the wilds of Montana and is an utter nymphomaniac. The narrator, Tabitha “Taz” Deacon, like the real victim, Meredith Kercher, is an Irish student at Nottingham University in England. There’s an Italian lover, a British lover, and an American roommate. Fictionalized are the “Brit Four,” three bitchy classmates of Taz’s from Nottingham, who, surprisingly, invite her into their clique while abroad. (She’s the Fourth.)
If you know even a little about the Amanda Knox case (I knew very little), you likely know that Taz is going to die. You likely know her roommate, drugs, and a lover or two are going to be involved somehow. Towards that end, the plot barrels along like a train through the Dolomites. You know the destination, that everything will funnel into that gory ending, but you don’t know how.
Most likely no one knows for sure who killed Meredith Kercher except for Kercher and her killer. Acknowledging the powerful failures of history, Crouch comes at it from a fresh angle, creating a particular fictional world that, without trying to nail the courtroom truths, depicts the emotions and the desires that were at play that semester. If you’ve ever traveled in Europe as a young person, there’s a good chance you’ve felt a dizzying mix of awe and elation and dread. There’s a chance that you’ve felt despairingly lonely and that you’ve made (what felt like) lifelong friends after five minutes on a train. So in this sense, by hitting these universal travel-abroad emotions via a very specific, fictional retelling, Abroad is entirely about the Amanda Knox case.
Guys don’t care about cheekbones
At least they don’t consciously. “Check out the cheekbones on that!” is not a line you will hear a man utter while eating hot wings. Cheekbones are a Beauty thing, as in beauty counter, as in the kind of physical beauty that women notice in each other. But when Crouch describes a girl as having “cheekbones that seemed to soar off either side of her face,” this is not her saying, ‘Hey girls, you know what I mean…’ It’s opening up this view of beauty to both genders. The intended audience in Crouch’s books is way more universal than you’d expect from an author of five books with attractive women on the covers. (Good sentence writing will always have universal appeal.)
Guys don’t care about cheekbones, but we care about power and desire, trust and betrayal. Glengarry Glen Ross turned a scammy real estate office into a War Room. The movie Bridesmaids nearly did the same, in an early scene where Maya Rudolph’s two friends compete over maid-of-honor duties. For me, the “War Room” scene in Abroad, when great powers collide, is when the doomed Taz finally introduces her Ugly American roommate Claire to her other friends, the B4 British Clique.
Interestingly, another Southern writer who writes equally well for men and women, Pat Conroy, understood this as well. In The Prince of Tides, he treats the mother’s vain attempts to get a recipe in the Colleton Junior League cookbook without a lick of irony or condescension. (Anyone who doesn’t realize that those spiral-bound community cookbooks share prominence with The Bible and To Kill a Mockingbird on the family bookshelf did not grow up in the South.)
Speaking of the South
Speaking of the South, it’s a little hard to see Crouch leave it after four books. The heroine/narrator is not even American, but Irish, a trick she pulls off (at least to this American reader) pretty flawlessly.
But young women go to Italy for many of the same reasons they go to Charleston: good wine and food, history, culture, fashion, shopping. The ooze you want to coat yourself in, the buzz you want to catch, is pretty similar in each place. (And despite the fact that beautiful women flock to Charleston and Italy, young men seem less likely to clue in – the College of Charleston is known for its lopsided male-female ratio, and there are no prominent male American or British students in Abroad.)
So this great Charleston writer has chosen to write about a historic European town, overrun by wealthy outsiders and hard-partying college students, with some dark secrets in its past, a history of women who have both all and none of the power. Fair enough.
Technically a palimpsest is a parchment or tablet that has been erased and reused, layers of text on top of one another. In Abroad we have the palimpsest of history, the archaeological layers of the fictional Grifonia, settled by the Etruscans, then the Romans, now conquered by students. We also have the archaeological layers on the small, human scale: the hidden things that remain in our childhood bedrooms, the shabby histories of shabby little places. And the palimpsest of spilled wine and blood. The palimpsest of lovers on the body, the scars that remain over the years. The taste of someone else’s cigarettes on their lips when you kiss them.
History will flatten out all the details, and the stories that are told the most and the loudest will dominate. But put a piece of wax paper over the old stone and rub it with a crayon and peer closely — you might uncover some lost voices.
June 17, 2014