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A Novel With a Murky Moral

This article written by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 28, 1999. All rights reserved.

Newspaper headlines deliver a pretty accurate reading

of what is worrying us. Back in 1996 it was the mentally-ill homeless,

and author Jean Hanff Korelitz delivered up "A Jury of Her Peers,"

her first literary thriller, which centered on a vicious, sidewalk

slashing of a schoolgirl by a homeless drifter. Now Korelitz introduces

her second novel "The Sabbathday River," into the hyper-sensitive

area of "baby-killing," an anxiety about infant murder by

teens that includes New Jersey’s own "Prom Mom."

Korelitz reads from and signs "The Sabbathday River" (Farrar,

Straus and Giroux; $25) at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair on Wednesday,

May 5, at 7 p.m.

The suspenseful new novel begins with jogger Naomi Roth’s discovery

of the doll-like corpse of a murdered newborn floating in the shallows

of a New Hampshire river. The authorities of small-town Goddard quickly

accuse a single young mother, Heather Pratt, and succeed in extracting

a confession. When the corpse of a second newborn is discovered, the

police are undeterred and accuse the naive woman of both crimes.

Roth, a transplanted New York Jewish liberal and Vista volunteer,

stranded in New Hampshire since the ’60s, feels a sense of kinship

to Heather, a happy adulteress living on the outskirts of town, who

bears a marked similarity to Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Both are outside

the social and moral strictures of this tight-knit, hardscrabble New

England community. Roth works with another newcomer and Jew, lawyer

Judith Friedman, to defend Pratt in court. Yet in the story’s startling

conclusion it is Roth who must confront some hard truths about the


"It was pure coincidence that the rash of high profile cases came

up while I was writing the book," says Korelitz, in a recent interview

from her home near Princeton. "The story began with a germ of

something that had happened in Ireland a long time ago when I was

living there. It was called the Kerry Babies case, which began with

the discovery of a stabbed infant, and where one woman was also accused

of giving birth to and murdering two infant newborns. I was well aware

of the case — everyone was. You could say the whole country was

obsessed with it.

"But it wasn’t until 10 years later, when I had my own child,

in 1992, that I saw something I hadn’t seen before," she continues.

"This was that the woman, who had been the victim in this case

of police misconduct and had become a feminist symbol, was in fact

— in my opinion — guilty of something: she contributed to

the death of her child."

While the high-profile scandal surrounding the deliberate or careless

murder of newborns is today’s news, the practice and its moral ramifications

is as ancient as human society. And the characters’ relationship to

their religious faith, or lack of it, is integral to the tale.

"I don’t think of this book as being about crime or infanticide,

but about moral murkiness," says Korelitz. "The first sentence

begins, `The first baby was found…’ And every step we take after

that brings us away from that horrible shocking moment and into murkier

waters. From the moment the baby is discovered, the reader is led

away from it, and from the horror of its murder, into issues of Heather’s

victimhood, into the assumptions made about Heather’s life, and the

outrageous excesses of the legal case that Judith Friedman must fight.

We end up making many assumptions as to who is really guilty, who

is to blame."

Like her protagonist Roth, Korelitz was born in New

York City into a progressive Jewish family. Her father is a doctor

and her mother is a family therapist. Korelitz attended Dartmouth

College (as did her fictional Heather Pratt) and paints a closely-observed

but unflattering portrait of rural New Hampshire here. Graduated in

1983, she took her master’s degree in English at Clare College, Cambridge,

and soon met and married the Irish-born poet Paul Muldoon. The couple

moved to the area in 1987 when Muldoon joined Princeton’s Creative

Writing Program. They are the parents of a daughter who will turn

seven in July, and will become parents again in late May. Notes Korelitz:

"It’s strange to be promoting a book about infanticide when seven

months pregnant."

How does Korelitz account for the maelstrom of recent publicity concerning

young mothers murdering their newborns? "My husband has this theory

that if you’re writing well, that the world suddenly conspires to

give you what you need," she says. "In this case, as I was

working, every day I opened the newspaper, there was some new horrible

case. There was even a case recently of an English woman trying to

smuggle her dead baby through Kennedy Airport."

Can a full-time writer also be a consumer of news? "Absolutely,"

says Korelitz. "There are at least 10 novels in every issue of

the New York Times. Life is strange."

— Nicole Plett

Jean Hanff Korelitz, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

609-716-1570. Korelitz reads from and signs "The Sabbathday River."

Free. Wednesday, May 5, 7 p.m.

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