New York writer Hortense Calisher treats syntax like it's taffy — there to be stretched. She handles time in the same way, pulling it into the most unlikely...

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“Tattoo for a Slave”

by Hortense Calisher

Harcourt, 324 pp., $24

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New York writer Hortense Calisher treats syntax like it’s taffy — there to be stretched. She handles time in the same way, pulling it into the most unlikely sidewinding shapes.

The purpose of these acrobatics of time-scheme and sentence structure is to angle a tricky light onto some unsettling Calisher family watershed moments, spanning a century from pre-Civil War Virginia to World War II New York (Calisher is now in her 90s).

“Tattoo for a Slave,” her new memoir, is structured around three such shocking moments in which private life and public events collide. The book is written in a style as resistant to speed reading as the later work of Henry James, and a far remove from the smooth, nuanced prose that first made Calisher’s reputation in The New Yorker in the 1940s, eventually garnering her National Book Award nominations (the prize-nominated “The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher” is a good place for newcomers to start).

Two things pull the willing reader through these contortions of phrase and narrative.

The first is the sheer, odd beauty of some of those phrases. To pick one at random: “My childhood transpired in a globe of comfort whose air — if I lean in toward the long perspective — I can still nip into, for a moment’s dream.”

The second is the extraordinary generational reach of Calisher’s family. Calisher was born in 1911. Her father, the seventh of eight children, was born in 1861 in Richmond, Va. Her grandmother, who lived to 97 (Calisher knew her), was born in 1827. As for Calisher’s grandfather, he may have been born in the last years of the 18th century. No record survives, but he emigrated from England to Richmond as a young man in 1827 and, like Calisher’s father, didn’t marry until he reached late middle-age.

Calisher’s father moved north while still in his teens, got into the perfume business and for several decades was quite the bachelor around town before marrying in 1910. He and the precocious young Hortense were confidantes by the time she was in her teens, and one of the things he insisted on, while trying to make vivid to her as much of his Southern Jewish heritage as he could, was: “Your grandmother never kept slaves.”

That’s the opening line of “Tattoo for a Slave,” and its very placement there suggests that it’s going to be contradicted later on. Still, for Calisher, the truth when it emerged came as a shock. Before she gets to that truth, however, she delivers two other moments of family confrontation/revelation that may knock the reader sideways.

The first concerns conflicts among a group of German-Jewish refugees whom the Calishers took in on the eve of World War II. They included the half-brother of Calisher’s mother. He had brought his son with him, and a small fortune. But where, his hostess wanted to know, was his wife?

It’s a chiller of a question, and the showdown it triggers is the stuff of high drama.

The second shocker moment comes a couple of years later. The U.S. has entered the war. Calisher, now married, lives in upstate New York and is tending to an infant daughter. Her father, having lost his wife at age 58, is facing his 80s on his own. And Calisher’s younger brother, desperate not to get drafted into the Army, comes to her with a scheme that repels her.

Again a long and digression-filled buildup leads to a stunning showdown — one sharp enough to keep brother and sister estranged for almost a decade. This final disintegration of a family circle that Calisher basked in as a child still has the power to hurt, even as it’s placed in long historical perspective: “Households, those bubbles atop the human condition, disappear regularly.”

The last lap of the book, addressing the slave-owning question, doesn’t match the intensity of these first two dramas. Calisher’s not an eyewitness here, and some of the digressions turn to full-spate ramblings that an editor should have reined in.

Still, “Tattoo for a Slave” offers more than enough reward as it lets family history illuminate (or throw shadows on) a national history that, especially in its “Greatest Generation” incarnation, has become a little too pat to be credible.

It was more complicated than that, Calisher insists — and always is.

Michael Upchurch: He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.