Tomorrow's Books: Book Reviews


Lorrie Moore


Although 9/11 is mentioned only twice in A Gate at the Stairs, its shadow falls across the heart of the novel. The brilliance of Moore’s approach to this forbidding subject is that it is so tangential: not until you have been mesmerised by a scarcely related story line does her real purpose become clear.
     Tassie Keltjin is a sparky but callow student at a Midwestern university who decides to look for work as a baby-sitter; bizarrely, she is taken on by a restaurateur and her husband who do not have a child but want her to accompany them as they go about adopting one. When they bring home an enchanting little girl who is partly black, Tassie discovers the full ugliness of racial prejudice; in the meantime, she falls for a Muslim fellow student, and whispers of distant conflicts and awful secrets begin to undermine her life.
     It sounds hard going, but Moore’s narrative is buoyed up by her magical descriptions of the changing seasons and her indefatigable wit (a brainwashed Islamist is ‘like Gertrude Stein speaking from inside a burka’; the eccentric restaurateur – as full of surprises as a circus act –  is ‘a Volkswagen endlessly expelling clowns’). The result is at once exhilarating and heart-wrenching.