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A Childhood Tragedy, Seen From The 'Periphery'

The author of six novels, Patricia Ferguson has also trained and worked as a nurse and midwife.
The author of six novels, Patricia Ferguson has also trained and worked as a nurse and midwife.

A young boy loses an eye to a freshly sharpened pencil and is rushed to the hospital. That one accident changes the fate of the doctors and nurses who care for him, his guilt-ridden mother and his neighbors. With a story spanning 50 years, Bristol, England-based Patricia Ferguson maps the constellation of characters in her charming Orange Prize long-listed novel Peripheral Vision.

The protagonist is luck itself, in the form of unintended pregnancies, mishaps, a train collision and brushes with strangers. These types of stories with large casts all held together by chance are generally told in films by directors like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson, and less so in novels.

Rather than writing a movie treatment, however, Ferguson uses some of the tricks that only work in fiction. There are layers of text, from medical records and letters, to information on the eye's structure and the mechanism of vision. Ferguson — who has five previous novels under her belt, although none previously published in the U.S. — sews together all of these fragments, like Dr. Beaconsfield trying to reassemble George's shattered iris.

When Sylvia, a doctor approached by a much older, one-eyed George about creating a better prosthetic, discovers a shocking connection to another character, she wonders, "whenever I come across a coincidence like this I think, yes, but what about all the coincidences we never actually, you know, see?" The details of the way the men and women in this story relate unfold slowly, some becoming clear only in the novel's last pages.

Ferguson holds much of the action off screen, approaching some of the most dramatic scenes from, well, the periphery. How the pencil actually got into George's eye and the circumstances of a character's death all remain a little blurry. It's not so much the trauma that's interesting, it's how people choose to, or choose not to, respond to it. Ferguson brings the story together in such a masterful way that even the Fates would be impressed.

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Jessa Crispin