Girl Through Glass
By Sari Wilson
Storytelling in dance can be exaggerated, physically emotional, and highly emotive, so it will strike readers that telling the story of former ballerina coming to grips with her past lends itself to melodrama, as in Sari Wilson’s compelling debut novel. Wrapped up in her tale are all sorts of things we might wish to avoid, like self-absorption on the part of children, parents, and teachers; the stringency and rigor that professional level ballet (or any other physically demanding) training requires; various kinds of abuse, from image issues to predatory practices; and the psychological pain and disruption of personal failure in youth.
Dividing the story into the present and the past, having adult Kate narrate the present in the first-person and the past in third, Wilson effectively gives us a sense of the barrier Kate has thrown up between her current self and her childhood, hence the metaphorical title. Slowly Wilson shows us how and why little Mira became adult Kate. Some may not always care for the rhythmic switching between present and past; however, in this case, Wilson employs it well to maintain tension and build suspense, not to mention in support of the title idea of gazing at oneself through a barrier of time and avoidance.
Adult Kate is something of an itinerant prof hoping for a grant that might bring consistency to her life. But a sexual indiscretion on her part puts the desire into question, and sends her off on a journey that ultimately forces her to confront some terrible events from her childhood.
As a child, her name was Mira and she trained a ballerina, working hard for acceptance into the School of American Ballet, putting her on the cusp of becoming one of Balanchine’s girls. She accomplishes this while struggling with an unstable home life, with parents more concerned with themselves than with her as a person. She finds solace and value outside her home with Maurice, an obsessively admiring and thoroughly creepy older man, a balletomane who places her on a pedestal and treats her like porcelain, until their relationship of distance snaps, the consequences of which haunt and cripple her for life.
Wilson does a good job of recreating the New York City of the 1970s, a place completely different from the city we know today, a time, some will recall, when NYC perched on the edge of collapse. A young dancer once herself, she also captures the challenges and competitiveness of world-class dance well, especially providing insight into the rigorous training programs brought to the U.S. by Russian defectors from the old Soviet Republic.
Those who enjoy the novel might find the new television program Flesh and Bone interesting as well. Like Girl Through Glass, the series is highly charged with melodrama, featuring a troubled ballerina and a demanding dance company at the center, and, yes, Russians on the fringe. w/c