Book review: Things We Couldn’t Explain by Betsy Tobin
Novelist and playwright Betsy Tobin is on top form in this perfectly-pitched romantic comedy which features two lovesick teenagers caught up in a religious maelstrom in a God-fearing American Midwestern community.
US-born but UK-based Tobin, author of acclaimed novels Bone House, The Bounce, Ice Land and Crimson China, moves into new and fertile territory in this warm and witty, original and entertaining coming-of-age odyssey.
It’s the summer of 1979 and the quiet, conservative town of Jericho is on the brink of national fame. Annemarie is a beautiful 17-year-old girl… she is also blind, clean living and has just revealed to her family that she is pregnant.
It would be a familiar tale of incautious teenage love except that Annemarie – a girl made special by her blindness, even ‘divine’ says her best friend Cora Lynn – is most definitely a virgin.
Ethan is the boy next door. He is also seventeen and would do anything to win Annemarie’s heart. They are ‘like two magnets, pulling towards each other’ but they have never acted on their desires.
A team of doctors has decided that her pregnancy must be the result of a genetic accident while Annemarie is not sure whether it’s down to ‘God, the Virgin Mary or a crazy dance of my chromosomes.’
Either way, she declares that ‘if God thinks he can make us more devout simply by knocking me up, He’s got another thing coming.’
But when Ethan encounters a vision of the Virgin Mary in the churchyard, all hell breaks loose in Jericho. Over the summer a battle ensues between the local church officials, who claim the pregnancy is a genuine case of immaculate conception, and the medical specialists who stick to their chromosome theory.
Temperatures rise yet again when the Virgin Mary starts to appear in the clouds at sunset and the town is besieged by zealots, tourists and profiteers. Can young love survive amidst all the madness?
Things We Couldn’t Explain is a gorgeously romantic, comic and ingenious tale. Tobin sets up the engaging clash between science, faith and doubt but with the focus firmly on fun and mystery rather than dry religious doctrine.
Annemarie is an enchanting creation… a vibrant, intelligent girl unbowed by her blindness, with her unusual pregnancy acting as a catalyst for an exploration of a range of themes from gender and sexuality to disability and religious belief.
Beautifully written and cleverly conceived, Things We Couldn’t Explain is a delight from start to finish…
(Accent Press, paperback, £7.99)