“Book Review: What Stella Sees”
Reviewed by Jack Messenger
A magical tale of epilepsy and artistry
What Stella Sees, Sarah Kornfeld’s complex debut novel, is about perception. Young Stella is ill with a peculiar form of epilepsy, while her parents Rachel and Michael are in the throes of divorce. Stella’s seizures offer a kind of vision-state in which she is able to explore the ocean depths, discovering real and imagined creatures that educate her and inspire her art.
The past – never dead, never passed – catches up with Michael and Rachel, and later with Mo, a friend of Stella’s, whose cerebral palsy sculpts his body into agonizing shapes. His body and Stella’s brain ultimately enjoy a kind of loving communion that leads to a freedom of sorts, where each is accepted and celebrated, and peace is discovered.
“After each seizure she comes out ready to learn! She’s not deadening, see? She reads advanced books on biology. She reads graduate and postgraduate-level research on the marine and tidal patterns.”
Michael, eager to love and be loved, is able to recognize his daughter’s gifts earlier than Rachel, who is consumed by rage at each unsuccessful treatment. The world does not always bend to our wishes, but Rachel and Michael are graduates of Yale, movers and shakers in contemporary Art with a capital dollar sign, and they are used to telling others what to think and who to buy.
Rachel’s rage is also a symptom of her own shame and guilt, the deep causes of which lie buried in Israel–Palestine. She is an elegant woman whose carefully maintained façade of urbane sophistication cracks before our eyes. Her skin-deep friendship with Julian, an influential art buyer, is masterly in its delineation of character and a shifting balance of power. Rachel is all about power, even with her daughter and her husband, and especially with the doctors and technicians who take over their lives.
What Stella Sees provokes us to ask what, exactly, is the good of art to those who cannot really see it. Isn’t it supposed to make us better people than we would otherwise have been? And although it is hard to visualize Stella’s own artworks, nevertheless what they convey is very real. Her artworks are delicate miniature worlds, constructed inside seashells, so that they can be seen and concealed while they answer the riddle of her body.
“The strangest things count for love in a hospital room … When the vending machine wasn’t broken and it gave Stella a chocolate; that was love.”
What Stella Sees avoids all sentimentality about Stella’s condition. The seizures make her “smarter” each time, so that she arrives at what is called a “deeper knowing,” but they render her vulnerable to accident and injury. Nor is the novel concerned to inspire us to greater understanding and acceptance of difference by presenting us with a brave young girl. Instead, we are shown the human, and we recognize it, incidentally and thus for always.
Sarah Kornfeld’s writing is frequently surprising and audacious, with passages of sustained brilliance. She is unafraid to report how people feel when they do not know it themselves; occasionally, she hints at a future with which they cannot possibly be acquainted. This is all excellent stuff, unafraid to “digress” or to break rules that are there to be broken.
From New York to San Francisco to Paris in search of a treatment that works, Stella undertakes a magical mystery tour of her own troubled mind.
What Stella Sees is a bivalve shell that turns on a hinge, and I found the first half to be a bit more successful than the second. Despite many good things, the second half attempts to cover too much ground and does not quite live up to its beginnings. Stella’s futuristic medical treatment takes place at the meeting point of art, science and psychology, which is interesting, but its sheer scale tends to overwhelm the characters and their relationships.
However, What Stella Sees concludes on a note that is both satisfying and disturbing. We make each other ill and we make the world ill, and there is no limit to the damage we can do. Stella’s art and her own survival provide a spark of hope, thank goodness: as long as we can feel and communicate, we can change. And if we change, we can make the world a better place.
Publisher: Cove International Publishers
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