19th Oct 2012
Fremont by Elizabeth Reeder
It is the second novel from Chicago-born Elizabeth Reeder, who has been based in Scotland for the past fifteen years and currently teaches on the prestigious MLitt Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
Kohl did not rush in to their first project, and have spent many months drumming up hype prior to the publication of Fremont, including an open call for cover artists and a public vote to decide on the final design of the book jacket.
The chosen cover depicts a colourful and eerie inked picture of a lone white house on an extraordinary hill, and accurately and beautifully reflects the twisted, mystical tale of the Fremont family found within this book.
Hal Fremont meets Rachel Roanoke when she is working in a diner, and in the very definition of a whirlwind romance they are married and expecting their first child in a matter of pages.
They move to a mysterious, ramshackle house that Hal’s father built, high on a hill above a gossipy town in a fictionalized Mid-West.
But Hal is single-minded, and wants only sons to inherit his construction business, the Fremont name, and the (very) few bits of wisdom he has to offer.
Needless to say, when Rachel starts conceiving and giving birth to daughters almost as quickly as Hal can carve a replica of the state they are named after (Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and nine others), calamitous cracks begin to form in a family that started out with nothing less than idyllic intentions.
I could be persuaded that this is in fact a metaphor for the founding of the U.S.A itself, and how honorable intentions and single-mindedness quickly descended in to bad blood. But to be honest, when you’re reading Fremont, no higher purpose creeps in to your mind, because nothing can distract you from the epic, intense and entrancing journey of this beautifully dysfunctional family.
Reeder gets in to the head of each of the characters, so that we see Rachel carry the burden of each pregnancy, and a devastatingly strong love for each child, and the crushing disappointment of the apathy shown by her husband. In a moment of reflection, Rachel describes the act of creating a family as “a crazy grand gesture… a brave leap of faith so powerfully sweet and sharp it’s blinding.”
Her maternal instincts run deep, and she knows each child from the womb, and knows how to appease them. In my favourite scene, Baby Colorado only settles under a starry night sky, so in the winter Rachel sticks glow-in-the-the-dark stars to the bathroom ceiling and fills the tub so her daughter can see the reflection of stars, too.
We also see the other side of the coin, of Hal’s isolation from his family and his complete lack of ability to understand any of his daughters, or even remember their names. This was sweetly ironic for me because Reeder creates a starkly different personality for each child, and it seemed impossible to me that a father could ever get those girls confused.
Each of the thirteen children is also given their own subplots and roles to play in the family, and in fact the burning question of whether or not each kid will make their dramatic escape is the driving force for much of the story.
One of the strongest aspects of this novel is that Reeder is not willing to give the audience what they want. I prayed, begged, for certain characters to realise the error of their ways and choose the right path, but sometimes they simply don’t, or sometimes they do but it’s already too late.
Indeed, the blows dealt to this family are not superficial; the characters are subjected to infidelity, violence, prejudice and one of the saddest deaths I think I’ve ever read. But the way Reeder allows this character to live on is magical, both in style and substance.
The dream-like prose suits the slow pace well, but I can’t deny that despite everything I loved about it, Fremont feels a little too long. The last fifth of the book, entitled Unconformities, reads like an extensive epilogue, although it’s not difficult to understand why a story with fifteen main characters would take a long time to wrap up.
With Kohl Publishing marking their intention to deliver “books you can think about” and “books you wish you’d written”, I have no doubt they probably almost ripped Reeder’s arm off when the manuscript for this first hit their desk.
There’s no better way to stake your claim as a publisher of brilliant, though-provoking women’s fiction than this, and I think anyone that reads Fremont will keep an eager eye on what Kohl, and Reeder, have got planned for the future.
Fremont was published on 2nd October and is available as both a paperback and ebook, directly from Kohl Publishing, from Amazon or your local bookshop priced at £8.99. A Kindle version is available priced at £4.28.
Recommended for: People who love books about dysfunctional families, and have Romantic notions about wild American landscapes, and motherhood (all me).