anne carson has a flawless con-trol of language. Her words are like knives that cut through politeness to expose her characters' intimate feelings and thoughts.
Blending fiction with dance to create what she calls literary tangos, she tells the story of a young writer who becomes enthralled by a beautiful man, marries him as a girl and endures his ongoing infidelities into late middle age with a harsh fatalism.
Husband begins to cheat on Wife less than a year after their wedding. In tango two, close to the beginning of the 29 dances played out here, the narrator unashamedly admits that she always knew her husband was loyal to nothing, yet loved him solely for his beauty.
Throughout their marriage she painstakingly records his indiscretions without responding to them, evoking the dance-like nature of intimate relationships. Wife brutally reveals his flaws, the fact that he profits from her alienation and even that he steals her writing and pretends it's his own. Still she doesn't leave him.
Each tango is preceded by a quote from John Keats (the book is a fictional response to his maxim that "truth is beauty"), whose unrequited love for Fanny Brawne is well known. The juxtaposition of the Romantic poet's inspirations with Carson's bleak, dense prose is surreal.
Sometimes the writing is too full of references to other works, dissolving into a collection of quotes by other, more famous writers -- Carson could easily be accused of writing like an English professor. At other times these allusions, such as her take on anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in tango 11, do, in fact, further the plot.
In all, Beauty is worth reading in order to witness the power of a woman writer who challenges the English language to a duel and wins.
Carson reads with Sarah Dearing (see cover story, page 70) on Wednesday (April 11) as part of the Harbourfront Reading Series. See details, this page.
THE BEAUTY OF THE HUSBAND by Anne Carson (Knopf), 147 pages, $33 cloth. Rating: NNN