The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman
Chatto & Windus Trade: ISBN 0701175125 PubDate: 09/01/03
Review by Iain Emsley
322 pgs. List price $ 10.99
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One suspects that there is something in the American psyche about the small town that is akin to the English village. It is a haven of community, the building blocks for society, yet it is also the keeper of dark secrets and cyclical mysteries. To add to this, there is a current generation of writers who are able to utilise this setting with great effect, pulling together a series of wondrous events that slide so neatly in out of realist fiction that one would be forgiven for seeing them as a new breed of magical realists. They pull realism out a potentially fantastic setting, yet also bring out the mystery in the mundane. Alice Hoffman has been utilising this mode for a while and has brought a sense of mystery to the small town novel.
In The Probable Future, Hoffman follows the fortunes of the Sparrow family, whose women (upon reaching the age of thirteen) develop unique abilities. Their line has descended from the mysterious Rebecca Sparrow, who appeared one day in Unity before later disappearing whilst being drowned as a witch. Stella sees a gruesome murder and confides in her somewhat feckless father, who is arrested for committing the crime. Stella and her mother leave Boston for the Sparrow family home, Cake House, where Stella has to become accustomed to small town life as well as the stigma still attached to the matrilineal side of her family. As her name suggests, Stella brings light to her new environs but the darker threads of history are set to re-enact themselves.
Hoffman balances the shades of black and white throughout the book, playing them against each other without falling into tweeness. Her characters become convincing because they are developed as multi-faceted but each with the room to grow into their new roles. As an author, she draws the strengths and weaknesses of each protagonist without judgment, developing the wonder and pain of growing up and changing. What she brings through marvelously is the fact that magic and realism have consequences for each other, that they are not mutually exclusive.
Out of this comes what seems to be essential to this raft of American magical realists – that the story is more important than the genre roles and confines - the narrative must go with the flow of the story. In the genre, we laud Jonathan Carroll or John Crowley for their innovations in this area, yet Alice Hoffman seems to languish strangely in the background and, for the life of me, I cannot see why.
A first sight, The Probable Future may seem a slight book but looks are deceptive. Hoffman takes the reader on a ride that is surprising and dangerous but which, in the wash, is both entertaining and enlightening. She manages to walk the fine line between magic and realism, playing both off superbly against each other. I'd recommend that you take the time to look through the world with her eyes.