The Assembler of Parts

  • Raoul Wientzen
  • Arcade Publishing
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Yelizaveta P. Renfro
  • October 25, 2013

In death, a young girl examines and tries to assemble the pieces of her story that add up to her purpose in life.

The Assembler of Parts, a debut novel by Raoul Wientzen, begs comparison to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, and yes, if merely summarizing plot, the similarities are striking. Both novels feature young dead girls narrating their lives from the lofty position of the afterlife. Both narrators review their experiences with a deep understanding that far surpasses the limited, stunted views of the adults who have been left behind to grieve and to overcome, in what limited ways they can, a child’s death. Both are lyrical, moving books that dare to imagine, in detail, a child’s early death and its aftermath. But Wientzen’s novel differs in significant ways — the age of his narrator, the circumstances of her death and her family’s reactions, to name a few — and deserves to be judged on its own merits.

The book opens with Jessica Mary Jackson reviewing her life through a series of “tapes” provided by “the Assembler of parts” in the afterlife, and the first scene she witnesses is that of her birth. “I forgive him,” she narrates. “I forgive Dr. O’Brien now*, forgive his thought as he laid eyes on me.” (The asterisks appear throughout the book marking words denoting time — because these are earthly distinctions and presumably in heaven such demarcations are unnecessary, artificial.) The thought for which Jessica forgives Dr. O’Brien: “My God! She’ll never hitch a ride home.” Because Jessica is born without thumbs, along with a host of other problems including deafness, a dozen missing bones, a damaged kidney and holes in the heart. The doctors give this host of abnormalities a name — Hilgar syndrome — and Jessica’s parents, Kate and Ford Jackson, are suddenly faced with caring for a child with a mysterious and potentially fragile condition.

Despite her limitations, Jessica proves to be an extremely intelligent, even precocious, child. She quickly charms family friend Joe Cassidy, whose own story of loss becomes a central theme in the book. Years ago, his wife and newborn son were killed in a preventable car accident. Now a bitter alcoholic, Cassidy’s life takes a turn when he meets newborn Jessica. For the first time in more than a decade, he finds himself deeply loving another human being. With her imperfect hearing (she has surgery to alleviate her deafness) and speech, Jessica is as fond of the man she calls AceyDee (her pronunciation of Cassidy) as he is of her.

In the afterlife, as she watches her tapes, Jessica becomes aware of her “purpose.” She understands that Cassidy is “set free of the bonds of his sorrow by his love” for her. She sees that her “imperfection” is “the key to his heart,” her “missing bones somehow whittled by the Assembler to fit precisely into the hole of his loss.” And it is Cassidy, able to appreciate and understand Jess better than anyone, whose voice is often the wisest. “These are good hands,” he tells her, holding one of her thumbless hands. “Good as any, Jess. The Assembler made ‘em, and He don’t make junk. You got enough fingers for two kids. Enough voice for ten. He makes everything just to please Himself. The bones and the skin, the meat and the sap, just the way it suits Him.” This ambitious book, in addition to everything else that it accomplishes, also delves into questions about the nature of God.

Though Jessica’s doctors carefully monitor her condition over the years, she dies at the age of seven from what appears to be a mild case of the croup. The second half of the novel then shifts to examine the ramifications of her death. From her perch in the afterlife, viewing tape after tape, she witnesses her doctors and family learn the cause of her death. Kate and Ford, desperate for justice, seek a large settlement in a lawsuit, and their smarmy attorney Brandon A. D’Woulfe, Jr., is an assembler in his own right. “I can get them to help me put this kid together so she’s as stunted and ugly and stupid as a wombat,” he says, referring to the Jacksons. “It’s all in how you arrange the pieces.” Wientzen deftly applies his central metaphor of “assembling” to the work of doctors, lawyers and, of course, God. And the work that Jess is doing in reviewing her life is an assembling in its own right. Her determination to answer the question of her purpose of her life is universal and made even more poignant by the fact that she was given less than eight years to live.

Wientzen is a seasoned pediatrician, and it shows. In addition to being a portrait of a family suffering exquisite loss, this is also an insightful, illuminating look at the lives of doctors, the decisions that they must make and the occasional lapses that can cost lives. And this insight into the world of medicine is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Wienzten has a keen ability to braid together the detached, clinical language of the medical profession (“The thoracic cavity is entered using the standard Y incision,” dictates the medical examiner during the autopsy) with the poetic, emphatic voice of a child seeking answers about her own existence (“I begin to see my life as a small part of something grander, more elegant: the intertwined nature of the souls of man”). This novel depicts doctors as people who make mistakes, who have trouble dealing with death, who quietly endure the pain inherent in their profession. If for no other reason, read this novel for the quiet wisdom of a doctor who has seen much joy and much suffering over his 30-year career. Wientzen reveals himself to be a man of medicine with a writer’s lyric imagination.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World (Black Lawrence Press, 2010). Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, South Dakota Review, Witness, Reader’s Digest, Blue Mesa Review, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from George Mason University and a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska.

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