Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"Hellenga is fearlessly inventive. Could anybody else combine snake handling, the Ituri pygmies of the Congo, life in a women's prison, learning to play timpani, a murder trial and a poignant love affair in three hundred-odd fast-paced, highly readable pages?"
—Maxine Kumin


"The lovers in Hellenga's moving, profound novels do not live in a world of conventional happy endings. His romances often end in attenuated moments of both disappointment and tenderness, partings that have the feel not of failed relationships but of life moving on and working out as it must. There is melancholy in that but a kind of happiness, too.

So it was in his best-selling debut, The Sixteen Pleasures (1994), and so it is in his latest novel, about a young woman, Sunny, just released from prison after serving five years for shooting (but not killing) her husband, and Jackson, an anthropology professor torn between his desire to return to Africa and to settle into the comfortable university life he's found in southern Illinois. Everything changes when Jackson meets Sunny, who grew up in a snake-handling church in Illinois' Little Egypt area (she shot her husband after he forced her to put her hand in a box of rattlesnakes). Sunny rents Jackson's garage apartment and quickly becomes his lover, but she is trying to escape her childhood and her husband, and Jackson is entranced by her stories of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, eventually going there to do fieldwork.

Hellenga fills the novel not only with fascinating details of snake handling and the religious ecstasy it inspires but also with a beguiling portrait of the comfort and shared intimacy of domestic life. Jackson and Sunny dance between the safe harbor of their life together and the wider sea of courage, risk, and adventure, each teaching the other about the many forms of joie de vivre.Yes, it is a melancholy story, but it is also immensely satisfying and even uplifting in that unique way that only deeply felt life can provide"

.--Ott, Bill Copyright 2010 Booklist