What’s done cannot be undone, and this is the lesson the three young protagonists of Carol Anshaw’s novel “Carry the One” must learn in the harshest possible way. Carmen, Alice and Nick are the three children of Horace and Loretta. We meet the siblings at Carmen’s wedding, at an artists’ cooperative in Wisconsin where Alice lives. The siblings’ parents, “hipsters and atheists, way too cool for weddings,” do not attend. Nick has driven up with his girlfriend, Olivia. Late in the evening they get in the car to return to Chicago after the wedding, along with the folksinger who has performed at the wedding. Alice and Maude, the groom’s sister, having begun an affair, decide to catch a ride back to the city with them. It’s a crowded car, and Carmen sees them off, worried when she notices that they are driving with only the fog lights. Olivia, driving, hits and kills a 10-year-old girl in the dark.
None of the siblings caused the accident, yet each of them, honorably, carries a sense of responsibility for the events that night. They are very young when these events take place in 1983, and the novel follows the course of their lives during the next 25 years. Carmen, pregnant at the time of the wedding, becomes a social worker and mother to Gabe. The marriage breaks up, but she eventually remarries, though she is never certain whether this second marriage is a mistake. Alice, a painter like their father, copes with her eventual success and the fact that this success overshadows and even threatens their overbearing father. Nick, a very young astronomy graduate student at the time of the wedding, loyally visits Olivia during her prison term. He also maintains contact with the mother of the girl who was killed. Oh, and dulls his pain with drugs, more and more of them.
Nick, Alice and Carmen don’t spend all their time working out their guilt, but the sense of complicity motivates many of their subsequent acts. Nick manages an unlikely career around the edges of academic astronomy for a while, but sinks further into addiction. Alice achieves great personal success, but is unable to develop a stable relationship. When one arises, she is surprised, feeling, perhaps, that it is not something she is entitled to enjoy. Alice and Nick continue to hope, unsuccessfully, that they will capture their mother’s attention. Carmen is less forgiving of their parents, who essentially forced them to grow up on their own, but more forgiving to her siblings than they are to themselves.
And if in the end this horrible event has shaped their lives, each has been able to find a moment of respite from it. Anshaw convincingly describes heartening growth and development over the years. Because of an accident the three siblings must look back unforgivingly at their younger selves; the creator of this unusual and moving book has given them the gift of grace even as she does not allow them forgiveness.
On her blog, Carol Anshaw has acknowledged that the novel’s ending is ambiguous. I have my own interpretation, and readers have posted their ideas in the comments to Anshaw’s blog. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments.