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The Dissemblers by Liza Campbell

The Dissemblers by Liza Campbell

Reviews, Vol. 4.3, Sept. 2010
The Permanent Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-57962-205-3
Cloth, 200 pp., $26
Review by Cynthia Reeser

Liza Campbell’s first novel, The Dissemblers, is a work of emotional depth that explores the boundaries of vision and what it means to see. Ivy is a painter who enters a world of false creations that threatens to destroy the mystery of her most admired icon, Georgia O’Keeffe. With chapters interspersed throughout the book that are alternately about and addressed to Georgia, Campbell’s writing operates on multiple levels.

Ivy occupies the same mental space as Georgia in these chapters, which serve as points of rest and commentary:

What a waste. Loving things that will never love you back. A painting. What a waste to love a painting. The wind. You can’t even paint the wind.

But how much safer was it, Georgia, to love the desert. Safer to love a stone than a human. A stone may never love you back, but it will never love another. The desert never understands you, but it never misunderstands, either.

Campbell acknowledges that there is seeing, and then there is seeing as an artist sees: “…one does not learn to draw, but learns to see.” An artist can not only see, but makes others see, in such a way that s/he can transform perspective, belief even. This is the power of the artist, to paint the “glow off the cathedral in a way that would make an atheist believe.” And in this way the artist not only captures, but possesses beauty. Artists have achieved near-immortal status because of this almost superhuman (in the sense that it transcends the ordinary) ability.

This need to make one’s mark in the world is a recurring theme throughout the book. The author writes in prose that rewards multiple readings: it often turns up new facets on re-reading, even though it sometimes lacks subtlety. For instance, the theme of needing to achieve, to succeed, is sometimes too overt, but the voice and the style support this directness even so: One such passage reads, “Sometimes, in the museum, the mediocrity of my life would seize me by the throat.” But this is easily redeemed by other passages that capture a sense of cogency:

Here are some things I want: I want a house in the desert with great sliding glass doors and a garden with carrots and basil. […] I want everyone to know what I see and I want never to be misunderstood. I want to make people I’ve never met cry because they see I understand. I want people who have never met me to fall in love with me. I want everyone I know to love me, voraciously. As voraciously as I love Georgia.

There is not only a satisfying level of emotional nuance, but there is also honesty in acknowledging the inherently dishonest aspects of human nature. The plot, though I am not one to read for plot, is engaging and fast-paced. The book, in terms of use of theme, style, characterization, and subject matter, is a laudable effort from a young, new writer. I look forward to reading her future works.

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