September 21st, 2018 | Lucy Gellman
Francis McKenzie is falling in love on the dance floor. The music has done its magic, the dance steps feel like silk beneath his feet. But he already knows it won’t work: the love interest is a patient on the psych ward where he works, which is a non-starter. And he’s the oldest person alive with cystic fibrosis and has no idea how many years he has left.
This is the world in which Rebekah Fraser’s new novel The Orderly finds itself almost half a century ago, as it opens on Tewksbury State Hospital in September of 1969. Outside the country, the Vietnam War is raging, leaving no one at home unscathed. Back home in the Northeast, its aftermath forms a trail of mental illness and addiction, doling out depression in handfuls. As the novel hops back and forth in time, multiple storylines deepen on this trail: of great love, great loss, and great fear in a time of unprecedented warfare.
The novel, years in the making, was released in paperback Friday, Sept. 21. Fraser, who is also the co-founder of the “Local Lit At Lotta” series (read more about that series here and here), is in the process of setting up readings as she finishes a book of nonfiction set to release in November.
What makes The Orderly, which Fraser classifies as “a dark love story,” are the characters who inhabit its universe. There is our titular character Fran, a kind orderly at Tewksbury whose love for dancing often outshines his disease, which has put a sentence on his young life. His brothers Marty and Will, a fellow orderly and medic in Vietnam. A mess of sisters and mother who fret over him still, each with their own trials and tribulations. And the patients at Tewksbury—a former debutante hit with depression, a survivor of domestic abuse who has suffered a breakdown, a motley crew of frontal lobotomies and sufferers of post-traumatic stress before it has a name. Fraser takes several of them on in the first person, switching tone as she narrates the same moments, told from different points of view.
For the author, the novel is a work of fiction, inspired by fact and family. As a girl, she grew up watching an aunt and uncle struggle with cystic fibrosis of CF, a genetic disease that causes mucus to build up in a person’s lungs and often leads to an early death. She learned the symptoms just by being around them: increased risk of infection, frequent trips to the hospital, raspy speaking and breathing. Salty skin, sterility, petite stature. But also life lived fully in the face of illness, that refused to be defined by it. As her uncle grew older, she also learned what it meant to live a sweeping, true love story, that could begin in a psychiatric hospital and last until death.
In advance the novel’s debut Friday, The Arts Paper sat down with Fraser to talk about her process, voice, and the approach to covering something that is at once deeply personal and has taken on a life of its own.