"Every day I choose to try to do good. Much of the garden is harvested and put away for the winter. I will not forget again that we can walk across this land in all its constancy and return more certain."
There's a storm building here in Maine, but it's a quiet one, and it's building slowly. When Meredith Hall's debut novel Beneficence was published in late 2020, the reviews that trickled in were poetic in themselves... the novel is "a river finding its way to the sea," "luminous," "a communion with the land." It is a novel of observation and of noticing, of a family watching the years go by as they contemplate and struggle through their own grief on the land they have nurtured. And quietly it has become noticed, with a constantly growing list of library patrons across the state and beyond patiently waiting their turn to (carefully!) crack the spine.
Beneficence tells the story of the Senter family: Doris, Tup, and their three children, who live on a farm in Alstead, Maine. The family is a fiercely loving unit, but when one of the children dies, the story transitions into one of described and yet indescribable grief. Though the members of the family handle the loss in vastly different ways—withdrawing, expanding outward, leaving home, seeking solace elsewhere—they are each followed by a sense of guilt, which is given voice in the narration that alternates between Doris, Tup, and middle child Dodie. It becomes increasingly clear that until they can each come to terms with their grief and guilt that they will orbit around each other in a surreal, broken state—inhabiting the beloved Senter farm but no longer in the idyllic way where they nurture the land and are in turned nurtured by its beauty and sustenance.
Beneficence is full of breathtaking and poetic language to carry its readers along. It has a meditative quality; even the action itself flows through the consciousness of one of the family members, filtered through the lens of contemplative observation and remarkable self awareness. Moving through the increasingly familiar Senter farm, the story orbits around the enveloping themes of grief, grace, happiness, beauty, and love. Even as emotions and events change the course of the novel, these are the steadfast and unchanging words that run as a current throughout, that hold the book and the Senters in place. As Hall offers the chance for readers to float on the current of her words, she asks a lot of them, too. She asks them to accept Dodie, even at fourteen, as remarkably mature in her sense of self-understanding, self expression, and responsibility, almost unbelievably so. Perhaps more than any other character, she recognizes her own possibilities for healing and tries to move steadfastly toward them. She tells us, "I do not want to be an angry person. I was a happy and grateful child." She tells us, "When I get better I am going to return to the orchard and sit in the branches. I have forgotten to do that."
And what does Hall ask us to make of the parents? Doris and Tup make for quite interesting characters, as it's easy at the outset to fall into their loving and lovely life and be entranced by their narration, yet they make choices throughout the novel that are frustrating and arguably unforgivable. Forgiveness itself is a central question of the novel, but it's a complex one. Characters are asked to forgive, but what about readers? Are we as quick to let go of our judgments on what characters have done or on how they handle things? Do we hold them to our own morals and expectations? Or do we let them be, absorb the flow of their words and just accept?
Again and again, Beneficence comes down to the language, reminding me in many ways of the quiet and unforgettable contemplation of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead quartet and Amanda Coplin's debut The Orchardist, mentioned previously on the blog. These are novels that demand in their small ways but that give and nourish. Click here to get on the list for your copy of Beneficence. And then let me leave you with Hall's words that offer both hope and uncertainty, the most appropriate feelings I can imagine for early 2021:
"I always believed that love is joy. That if we are bound by love, we are assured of grace. The Senters are bound by love. But it has assured us only of itself. We love each other. Anything can happen."