Francine Prose’s fine new novel is a tightly wrapped, ominously ticking package. You keep expecting it to explode. It never does. Just when you think you have come to the anticipated grisly climax of Primitive People, you discover that what you’re holding in your hands is a comedy, though not exactly a jolly one. All’s well that ends with minor lacerations. (Having tamed an early urge to fantasy, Prose has made a specialty of incisive, abrasive, comic realism in her recent books, including Bigfoot Dreams and Women and Children First.)
The theme of this novel, which takes a young Haitian woman from the ”daily riots and killings and strikes” of her own country to the placid Hudson Valley region of upstate New York, is peace and disquiet: ”This was life like clockwork. This was peace, not war. And yet it didn’t seem peaceful, though Simone could not have said why.”
You’ll have no trouble saying why. It’s because Prose orchestrates a portentous atmosphere thick as a blood pudding. Simone, who entered the U.S. through a bogus marriage to a Haitian Brooklyn cabdriver, is already skittish when she arrives in Hudson Landing, N.Y., to take care of the two children of Rosemary Porter, a rattled 40-year-old woman whose rich husband, Geoffrey, has left her and who is trying to console herself by taking up sculpture. The mansion has belonged to Geoffrey’s family since colonial times, though the eeriness is a recent addition. The family portraits in the attic have their eyes cut out. When Simone is groping her way through the fogbound woods, she brushes up against a dead sheep hung from a tree. When she ventures back into the woods with the kids, they are shot at. It’s the opening of hunting season, but there are dark rumors about the Count, the degenerate Bavarian on the neighboring estate. And there’s a snowstorm full of menace. And then there’s Geoffrey, condemned as a womanizing ogre by a chorus consisting of Rosemary, her hard-edged best friend, Shelly, and Shelly’s foul boyfriend, Kenny. But when Simone meets Geoffrey, she finds a charming, bantering man ”slighter and more boyish than the lumbering monster she had been led to expect.” He seems to be good with little George and Maisie, who stay with him on weekends. But why do the kids seem so subdued, sometimes tearful, after these visits? And why does he refuse to let Simone pick them up at his house?
Prose gradually pulls our more lurid expectations out from under us, administering surprises instead of shocks. There’s a fair amount of contrivance in this, but more than a fair amount of wit to go with it. Her American characters are sophisticated and clever, bristling with belligerent jokes, self-inflicted psychological jargon, and up-to-the-minute nutritional anxieties. But their breezy conversation, like their feckless lives, flirts with chaos; they are shallow, rude, blundering. Or, to underscore the irony of the title, they are primitives, and Simone is the somewhat baffled and lost explorer among them (they treat her with nonchalant equality but are patronizing about Haiti, too). Their violence may be more subtle than the sort practiced in Haiti, where Simone found a dead man ”sliced open from his collarbone to his waist” near her house, but it’s real, and the children, brought to delicate, precise life by Prose, are its chief victims. The ”sacrificial spirits” of the voodoo cults cross borders: ”Every little cruelty was an offering on their altar.” Yet there are comic spirits on hand here as well, still grimacing amid the gathering gloom. And Prose’s prose is strong. This is a novel in a minor key, but just about perfect.