To Be Sung Underwater

This novel by Tom McNeal is about Judith, a young woman who, when her parents divorce, moves from Vermont to a small college town in Nebraska where her father is a professor. It is also about Willy, a young man she “abandoned, and yet never quite left behind.”

The story is about two worlds: the surface and what lies beneath the surface; the present and the past; the world Judith finds herself in when she reaches a mid-life crisis, and the world she longs for.

Judith lives in Los Angeles with her husband of twenty years. She edits movies.  The turning point or “swerve” in her life begins when her husband buys a new bedroom set for their daughter Camille and places the old set out by the pool.  To Judy, this bedroom set not just any furniture.  It is a birds-eye maple bedroom set that has family history and a special significance to her.

Judith rents a storage unit and secretly reconstructs it to look like the room she had when she was a teen.  She escapes her reality of editing movies and the façade of her marriage by thinking back to the simple joys of her high school years.  She finds herself drawn to the storage unit, again and again losing track of all time while she naps peacefully on her birds-eye maple bed.

We quickly realize that Judith’s life in Los Angeles is superficial.  Her musings about the high plains of Nebraska have the depth of simplicity.  Her memories reveal who Judith really is beneath the surface.  Those memories involve Willy, a young carpenter who ushered her into womanhood on the birds-eye maple bed and helped her appreciate the beauty of a sunset and his dream of a little acreage where he would one day create a small lake.

Judith’s transformation into an alternate world is so complete that she creates a new identity and hires a detective to find three friends from her past.  Of course, one of them is Willy, the boy she left in Nebraska.

Tom McNeal, author of award-winning “Goodnight, Nebraska,” spent part of every summer in Nebraska, at a farm where his mother was raised.  To those of us familiar with the area, we recognize Rufus Sage as Chadron and are pleasantly startled to read references to Hemingford, Highway 385, Herman the Germans and other local places.  I was not surprised, however, to realize that what matters most happens in small communities in America’s heartland, and not on either coast.

I wondered about the title of the book, but then I thought about when I was a kid, taking a bath, and I let my head rest on the bottom of the tub, ears completely covered, nose above the waterline.   I remember singing and listening to how different the tune sounded underwater. I remember how the words and music were clear and pure and limited to the voice inside my own head.  Those two worlds–  life on the surface and life beneath the surface—still mesmerize me and those same worlds are captured eloquently and reflectively by Tom McNeal.

Immerse yourself. This book is “to be sung underwater.”

~ Deb Carpenter-Nolting

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