This week, I review three books that left a profound impression on me – The Big Three – this past month. I devoured them and found them too nourishing not to share. Dig in.
Today, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran.
If you know me through my writing—or know me well at all—you know I love New Orleans. I expected that I would love Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead for much that reason.
What I didn’t expect was to fall even more in love. I had to, though. Sara Gran has done more than write a damn good book about a damn great city. She crafted a love letter that showed New Orleans’ soul in all its resplendent romance.
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead illuminates New Orleans’ soul by revealing the essence of it — mystery and wonder.
It arranges this premise like a line of Tarot on a table: New Orleans is beauty and tragedy and wonder incarnate. New Orleans is, therefore, a mystery. And life is beauty, tragedy and wonder. And so life is a mystery. And so New Orleans is life.
This chain of meaning evokes the power of all mysticism: When the significance we find in the symbols around us are joined together — like a causality in a mystery — a greater significance is revealed.
And no doubt, as Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead states explicitly, I knew the solution to this mystery all along. After all, Funk fan, I write about New Orleans because I find it to be a pure microcosm of the human experience. I came to my conclusion about the greater meaning of Sara Gran’s book even before I opened its splendidly symbolic minimalist cover.
It makes it no less true. Here’s my proof:
In Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Sara composes as complete a picture of New Orleans and its inhabitants as I’ve ever seen. The majesty is there, right next to the tawdriness. The brutality is paired with heartbreaking human beauty. Sara is conscientious about arranging a total view of the spiritual spectrum.
Don’t think this is orderly, though. Oh no. Like New Orleans — like life — it is a mess. There is a fabric of meaning to it, and it all ties together, but until the twists and turns of this symphonic plot sing to a close, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is spectacular madness. Everything is a mystery.
Did it keep me baffled until the end? No. But it’s not meant to. It wants the reader invested in their own intuition. It wants you to figure it out without truly figuring it out. It’s not about being a shocking who-done-it so much as it is revealing to the reader that our powers of deduction are mighty and precious and core to who we are.
So while it didn’t have me duped as to who done it, it had me deeply invested in the question of “why.”
Why did they do it? Why do any of these characters do what they do? Why is New Orleans the way it is?
It is as much about the why in oneself as it is about why of a crime, a city, a story.
And this is a message that’s dear to me. Just as New Orleans is dear to me. There is no better city for this story: A strange, little space filled with masks and ghosts and gang wars, majestically attired and threadbare, sad and celebratory and desperately proud.
If those qualities sound familiar, they should. They’re the cityscape of most people’s souls.
I love people because of these things. I love New Orleans because that’s place where they dance and fight without shame.
I loved Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead for getting that—for reminding me why.