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'Centuries of June' borrows word-of-mouth style from storytellers

| Sunday, June 12, 2011

There is precedence for the structure Keith Donohue employs in his new novel "Centuries of June." The various narrators, the changing settings of their tales, recall the way "The Canterbury Tales," "One Thousand and One Arabian Nights" or "Aesop's Fables" were unveiled.

Donohue's book differs in a few ways. His storytellers are all women who have been wronged, betrayed or disappointed by men. And their stories are all uniquely American.

"I've always been intrigued by and had an interest in American history and American myth," says Donohue, who will be a guest of Writers Live at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Oakland branch on June 23. "I was kind of trying to use that as the springboard for this story and draw upon that rich tradition but, somehow, make it new."

A native of Scott and a graduate of Duquesne University, Donohue works as the director of communications for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. "Centuries of June" is Donohue's third novel, following 2006's "The Stolen Child" and "Angels of Destruction" (2009), both critically acclaimed bestsellers.

Like his previous works, there's a strong fantasy element in the story of a man who takes a fall in his bathroom, wakes up and then is visited by, first, a man who resembles his father, and then, seven women who all take turns trying to kill him. They range from Dolly, a Native American of the Tlingit race, to Bunny, a pistol-packing gal from the '50s. Each spins a tale of woe and seeks vengeance, all within the confines of the same bathroom.

Asked if "Centuries of June" is a feminist novel, Donohue laughs, saying, "I've got four sisters and three daughters, so I have to be a feminist writer whether I like it or not. But I wasn't conscious of trying to prove a point. I just wanted to give these women a voice."

Donohue had the structure of the book in mind when he came across Gustav Klimt's "The Virgin," an Art Noveau painting that features a tangle of women in a bed. He also quotes from Gaston Bachelard's book "The Poetics of Space," which examines how a person's home mirrors his internal life. Various themes emerge, but the author says "a lot of this stuff happens by accident. You don't realize what you're thinking about until you get through the process."

In addition to Dolly and Bunny, the women include Jane, who had passed as a young boy on a ship en route to the New World; Alice, accused of being a witch in Salem, Mass.; and Marie, held as a slave in New Orleans in the 19th century.

Each emerges with a different weapon, trying to slay the main character (whose name is not revealed until the book's end). Each wears a different color outfit. For the author, the cumulative effect was akin to a game of Clue.

"Only the room stays the same," Donohue says. "It became a fun thing to plan, how the next character was going to try to bump him off. And. certainly, there's an element of payback, that he's really screwed up. I wanted each one of them to have a motive for bumping him off, because that's part of the whodunit aspect of the book."

As in Donohue's other novels, Pittsburgh's influence on the writer comes to the surface. One of the women, Adele, was a regular at Exhibition Park on the North Side in 1903 when the Pirates played in the first World Series.

"Even though I haven't lived there in 30 years, Pittsburgh still feels like home to me," Donohue says. "It was one of eight stories in the novel, even though it's not set (in Pittsburgh). I did feel the tug on my shirtsleeve, and was looking forward to writing this because I knew what was coming, I knew the time period and I'm a big baseball fan. To this day, during the summer time, the first thing I do in the morning is check the box scores to see how (the Pirates) are doing. Talk about your quixotic hopes and dreams."

Additional Information:

Keith Donohue book talk

When: 6 p.m. June 23

Admission: Free, with registration

Where: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Oakland branch

Details: 412-622-8866 or website

Additional Information:

Capsule review

The gist of 'Centuries of June' comes into focus slowly, as a series of stories, all told by women, that are essential to decoding the book's puzzle. This ploy has inherent dangers, especially in an age where attention spans are limited. But author Keith Donohue solves this dilemma by making sure each part of the narrative is compelling, and by way of his always ingenious storytelling.

• Rege Behe

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