War photojournalist and memoirist Deborah Copaken Kogan has added a novel to her extensive writing resume. Not surprisingly, the subject involves photography, memory, truth and the search for identity in a world permeated by suffering.
In Kogan's debut, Elizabeth Burns Steiger languishes stateside after what the reader learns have been brutal tours of duty as a photographer in Kosovo and Iraq. Married to Mark, a researcher, Elizabeth takes a break from foreign correspondence for a few years and has two girls, then finds herself in "journalistic purgatory" when her magazine cuts her job category.
Weighed by the demands of young children, a preoccupied husband, uncertain career direction and unresolved trauma from her war years, Elizabeth begins to have vivid memories of a distant childhood friend, April Cassidy, who at 7 fell victim to murder-suicide by her mother.
The memory spurs Elizabeth to a journey of investigation and self-discovery. She begins psychotherapy then gets funding to produce a TV story on what really happened to April, April's sister and their mother.
At first it seems that the narrative will focus on the investigation of the tragedy, which combines a ripped-from-the-headlines storyline with a provocative social issue: What are the real dangers of ignoring postpartum depression?
But Kogan is more ambitious than this. The most gripping part of the story is not April or her mother, Adele, and how objective truth can smear into truly felt fiction, but how the past Elizabeth resembles April, and eventually, how the present Elizabeth resembles Adele.
There are many hair-raising moments in "Between Here and April" -- concerned as the book is with abuse, depression and brutality -- but none more icy-cold than the scene where we wonder whether Elizabeth will turn into an Adele.
The TV story about the Cassidy tragedy turns into a kind of mirror for Elizabeth. As she goes about her information-gathering, she reflects on her past: her childhood, war experience, current life as a mother and wife. The first-person narrative facilitates self-examination as Elizabeth goes deeply into her subject and herself.
The result is fragmenting. I refer to the heroine as Elizabeth, but she is seldom called this by anyone else. As a child, it is Lizzie. Her daughters Tess and Daisy call her "Mommy." Her husband has several names for her, including Liza, Zabs and Lizzie-bean. Her wartime colleague Renzo, a French-Italian bad-boy photojournalist who reappears during the investigation, refers to her as "Mon Eliza," which in his hybrid accent comes out the same as "Mona Lisa."
The allusion is apt. No one knows exactly who the subject of the Mona Lisa painting was, and her famous half-smile has inspired millions to wonder what kind of essence DaVinci captured when she sat for him.
Is Elizabeth a die-hard photojournalist, the kind of woman who chucks it all to do what she loves with the passionate, talented foreigner who once bewitched her? Or a mother who is always there for her children, ready with the proper icing and sprinkles for birthday cupcakes? A wife who works hard at her sexual and emotional relationship with her angst- and fetish-ridden husband?
It is an exhausting mixture to contemplate and more tiring to contain in a novel. Kogan is better at episodes than pulling a whole together. An interview scene with Elizabeth and an older Jewish lady is pitch perfect, but questions and plot threads are left hanging, and a concluding chapter that smoothes things over feels rushed, like the last act of a mother who has done too much in one day.
Reading the book sometimes feels like four-wheeling through a war zone in a fog. At the end, you turn to your driver, Deborah Copaken Kogan, and thank her for the ride.