A story often passed around in my family is the time my grandparents forgot one of their ten children in a bar. They’d been traveling and stopped so the kids could use the restroom, and back on the road, were pulled over. The police officer wanted to know how they could leave a child behind, then looked in the back of the crammed station wagon and understood: of course with so many children, one could be lost. Perhaps that’s why I find large family dynamics so fascinating — and was so eager to read Rebecca Kauffman’s latest novel, Chorus, about a family of nine.
It’s difficult not to describe Chorus as a “novel-in-stories,” though its book jacket makes no such assertion. The story spans over fifty years, weaving through time from the 1900s to the 1950s, offering glimpses of the lives of the Shaw family. The perspectives of the seven Shaw children and their parents are offered in vignettes, and while each chapter could be a standalone story, the careful plotting and organization is indeed novelistic: information is dispensed methodically, at just the right moment, to perfectly pace the mystery at the book’s core: the circumstances of Mrs. Shaw’s death.
Chorus opens on the Shaw’s farm, a hundred miles from the destruction of a deadly tornado that devastated Rye Cove, Virginia in May 1929. Patriarch Jim Shaw reflects on the aftermath:
"He pictured the fathers of Rye Cove carrying shovels under this same moon, their streaked faces both hopeless and hopeful, digging through rubble late into the night, searching like madmen for either proof of death, or proof of life. And he knew that this beautiful world had a forked tongue. And he knew that everything he thought and felt and feared was real."
This quote nicely summarizes the novel’s primary theme: hope in the face of despondency.
After his wife’s untimely death, Jim Shaw cares for his seven children and the family farm. The seven Shaw siblings each have their own way of dealing with the trauma and loss of their mother, who, because of severe mental illness, had never truly been there. Some of the siblings marry, some never do; some become widowed or divorced. All carry their struggles differently: through alcoholism, anxiety, relationship dynamics, suffering PTSD, and a scandalous teen pregnancy.
Some readers may question the book’s scope which spans half a century and includes nine points of view in less than three hundred pages. And while the novel’s non-linear structure helps one orient to the large cast of characters, three males whose names all begin with the letter J (Jim, John, and Jack) can initially be confusing. However, the characters quickly come to life because of their responses to the unique situations they find themselves in, such as when one character, a widow, finds a dead dog and the owner, a complete stranger, also widowed, begs her to go to his house and break the news to his daughter. The way the characters behave when faced with this kind of predicament reveals who they are, so they feel fully realized. Even so, it’s true the reader will finish the novel with a limited understanding of each character, but like a chorus of voices, it is not the individual voice one seeks, but the sound of the wondrous whole.
While some could dismiss Chorus as tackling more than its page count allows, or even viewing it as a novel-in-stories, doing so misses out on the beauty of this book. Each story-like chapter is so poignant — many with the feel of an Alice Munro story — it’s easy to fall under Kauffman’s spell. But when, after finishing the novel and viewing it in its entirety, the precision and care that went into plotting is clear. The pieces offered are all we need to know at each moment, and those pieces compile to reveal a portrait of the Shaw family. As those from large families know, one’s individuality can feel lost in the crowd — or in the case of my uncle left in a bar — literally forgotten. As the novel’s title suggests, this story isn’t about these individual characters, but the way, together, they comprise a family — one that, like any family, is complicated and imperfect, but bound by love, however that love shows up. Viewed on its own terms, Chorus is indeed a near-perfect novel, reminding us that even as our losses magnify our flaws, recovery is possible when we have people who love us.
By Rebecca Kauffman
Published March 1, 2022