Nan Cuba’s Body and Bread (a novel)
Review by K. L. Cook
Engine Books, 2013
Time’s pressure and elasticity is the great subject of fiction. The best stories and novels meditate on the complex braiding of past, present, and future. Narrative happens in time, through time, and upon a time. In Nan Cuba’s vivid and haunting debut novel, Body and Bread, the narrator, Sarah Pelton, is a woman obsessed with time and place. An acclaimed anthropologist, she specializes in decoding the past, in discovering the secrets of ancient North American civilizations. She was part of a team that found new evidence in Texas that revised the previous narrative about the Clovis culture.
This is what Sarah does: she revises the past. She’s a “truth scavenger,” as she says, and in this novel, she’s scavenging the subterranean secrets that lay hidden beneath the surface narrative of her family’s history. Her parents are dead, and her two brothers, both conventional doctors, are busy strategizing ways to deny their dead brother’s widow her share of the family inheritance. The stakes are high because the widow’s daughter, Cornelia, is in desperate need of an expensive transplant.
When Sarah befriends Cornelia and finds herself at odds with her brothers, she is also forced to examine her relationship to her dead brother, Sam, the black sheep of the family with whom Sarah felt especially close and whose death, decades ago, still haunts her. The narrative oscillates between the present family battle over the inheritance and Sarah’s anguished probing of the dozen years leading up to Sam’s suicide.
Despite the weighty subject, Cuba’s handling of the material is graceful and leavened by both intelligence and wit. Though we know about the suicide from the beginning, and that knowledge darkens the narrative, Sam is a lovable iconoclast, encouraging his sister to question received dogma and examine hypocrisies. He gently teases Sarah when she becomes involved, as a young woman, in a religious cult, and he pokes fun at his brothers, who have become fundamentalist in their religious beliefs. “Faith, hope, charity, these three,” he says to her at one point, “roads advertised but less taken.”
By the end of the novel, we mourn the loss of this beautiful, troubled, essentially generous man—and we root for the optimistic Cornelia. She is an embodiment of Sam’s spirit, and Sarah’s effort to help Cornelia is an anthropologist’s and sister’s act of faith, hope, and charity.
Though the novel is populated by a rich cast of characters, deftly depicted, Sarah is the great creation here. She is a woman full of contradictions, which she probes but doesn’t try to erase. Her voice, the voice of the novel, is crisp, clean, vividly precise, and replete with complex insights that make her sound like the questioning heroines of Nobel Prize laureate Alice Munro’s great, expansive stories. Like Munro, Cuba knows how to immerse us in the eloquent, intelligent, and unpretentious consciousness of a woman whose fidelity is to the unraveling of the many layers of truth that lay hidden, like ancient civilizations, beneath the surface of time. This truth scavenging makes Body and Bread an emotionally, ethically, and aesthetically riveting experience.
K. L. Cook is the author of three books of fiction, most recently Love Songs for the Quarantined. A tenth-anniversary edition of his short story cycle, Last Call, was published by Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press in fall 2013. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Environment program at Iowa State University.