Book Review: Trompe L’Oeil by Nancy Reisman
In Trompe L’Oeil, Nancy Reisman delivers a heartbreaking account of what happens to a family after the tragic death of a child. Even though the moment of loss can be quick, the ghost of the event will haunt the family, seemingly coloring every day and every decision, for the rest of their lives.
Reisman takes readers into the lives of the Murphys—a young couple and their three children, just starting out on the road of family life. After four-year-old Molly is hit by a truck and killed during a trip to Rome, the life of every member of the Murphy family changes, molds, and is divided into “before Rome” and “after Rome”. The family must move on, but it is clear that nothing will ever be quite the same. Reisman writes of Nora, the Murphy matriarch, “A space Nora had once associated with Molly remained as an empty quadrant of air, or a kind of silence housed in all things Molly, or attached to Molly’s death, and therefore ever-deepening.”
We’ve seen stories of grief before; what makes this tale different—besides the writer’s gorgeous prose and poet’s ear for language—is Reisman’s ability to meld the essential human story with an almost clinical observation of the family. Picture the family, Reisman tells us, observe them just as you would observe the paintings in a museum. Notice how the subject can appear to be many things at once, depending on the viewer’s perception. “Rooms disappear. But might they reappear again? What if, like the salon of Vuillard’s Waiting, this Interior—the woman standing in a doorway, the pink walls blooming with roses—nonetheless awaits you? At least in the mind.”
Translated, trompe l’oeil means “deceive the eye” and defines an art technique that relies on imagery to allow flat objects to appear to exist in three dimensions, through a type of optical illusion and forced perspective. By placing the Murphys in richly developed worlds (Rome, a house on the beach, an apartment in the city), Reisman brings them into full, three dimensional life, just as a skilled painter might in a masterful piece of art. And, as an even more complex structural layer, each member of the Murphy family struggles after Molly’s death to find his or her own “three dimensional” self. Some succeed, and are able to thrive (even if it means leaving the family unit); others struggle throughout their lives to understand who they are, and who they might have been had Molly never ran from the curb that day in Rome.
Trompe L’Oeil oozes with sophistication and intellect. Reisman is an artist, painting with small, intricate strokes, a broad and dazzling picture. While the whole is a masterpiece, it is the small strokes—the descriptions of the girls’ bedroom, the details of each home the Murphy’s had lived in—that make the story alive, relatable, and believable.
Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in West Virginia. She received an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University in 2005 and is currently an Assistant Professor at Pierpont Community and Technical College. She also teaches community creative writing classes and workshops. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Switchback, r.kv.r.y., Ardor Literary Magazine, Superstition Review, Paste, Willow Springs Review, and The Kenyon Review Online, among others. Natalie is the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers Contest and the Betty Gabehart Prize. She is also an active book reviewer whose work has appeared in Los Angeles Review, Fjords Review, Paste, Shenandoah, Harpur Palate, and Mid American Review. Additionally, Natalie serves as a literary editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, is the High School Workshop Coordinator for the West Virginia Writers Workshop at WVU, and is co-host of SummerBooks: A literary podcast.