Book Review by Zinta Aistars
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Kunati Inc., 2008
If you are a lover of fine literature, you know that sweet moment of discovery. This is why you read. This is why you open book cover after book cover, anticipating that golden moment. It happens when a newly opened book reaches from the printed page and into your mind, into your heart, and captures cleanly both imagination and resonant emotion. Opening Belly of the Whale, by first-time author, Linda Merlino, is such a golden moment.
I may never have picked this book up in any of my bookstore wanderings and treasure hunts. The dark cover with flashes of neon light, a tiny gunman, and a teary bald woman may have had me turn away. Don't judge. Not like that. For this book, arriving instead in my mailbox awaiting review in The Smoking Poet literary e-zine, may have begun as something of an editorial job ... but concluded with a new fan for writer Linda Merlino.
The story begins at the end.
"I fear that the dead are gathered here in this corner of Whales Market, that the sums of several lives are laid out on gurneys like me, and that yesterday I thought the worst thing happening was my breast cancer."
Hudson Catalina—"Hudson like the car, Catalina like the island, Hudson Catalina, I love you," her husband Jack whispers to her in their marriage-long game—is on the brink of giving up. Her mother has died of cancer, as has her grandmother. Now, after a double mastectomy, as she battles for life, or is it that she battles against the torments of medicine, chemo and radiation, 38-year-old Hudson wishes only to be done. Done. With all of this. Despite her four lovely babies, her ever patient and devoted husband, Hudson is beyond tired of the fight. It is Tuesday, and she throws some delicate treasure against the mirror, breaks all, feels broken herself, and has no patience left. Not even for the love of her family and closest friend. What's the point?
You know how that happens. You reach the end, what feels like the end, and when you think you have encountered the worst life can shovel on you, you encounter something even darker. Here is the belly of the whale, and Hudson is swallowed into it. Dragging herself out into a storm to go to a small grocery for a few items in preparation for her daughter's birthday, surely the last one she will share, Hudson becomes hostage to a young man gone mad with his own devastated heart and broken spirit. Here begins a nightmarish night of being held hostage, handcuffed to the dead and dying, hope threaded to another boy who is mentally incapacitated. Pressed that hard and so harshly against yet another wall in her waning life, Hudson Catalina makes some discoveries about herself and about where hope begins ... somewhere beyond the point where you think you lost it.
I am keeping my eye closely trained on this new author. Learning that Merlino wrote much of this book in longhand, scribbling notes throughout a busy mom's day, I understand the drive and motivation that could produce such a worthwhile read. In a day and age of a struggling publishing industry, just when you are about to lose hope in the literati, this kind of writing makes you find new hope yet again.
~ Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, summer 2008 issue