Icy Sparks
By Gwyn Hyman Rubio (Costa Rica 1971–73)
Viking Press,, $24.95
308 pages

Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 1997-98)

    So when you think of female writers from Kentucky, who comes to mind? Bobbie Ann Mason?
         Try again.
         In July 1998, Gwyn Hyman Rubio published her first novel, Icy Sparks, to great critical acclaim. Icy Sparks was selected as one of the New York Times’ Notable Books of 1998, praised by Time Magazine, and chosen as part of “The Next Wave of Great Literary Voices” in the Discover New Writers program. Not bad as far as first novels go. Rubio is already at work on another novel.
        The acclaim is well-deserved. Icy Sparks is the inspiring story of a sensitive, young woman from rural Kentucky who suffers from unpredictable body twitches and impulsive bouts of cursing. An epilogue to the novel, penned by Icy in her twenties, explains that she has been diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome. But the bulk of the story is set during her adolescence, before the source of her behavior is discovered. Icy lives with her grandparents in the town of Poplar Holler, until her reactions intensify and she is sent for a few months to Bluegrass State Hospital, a residential facility for youngsters with behavioral problems. Rubio does a poignant, but fair, job of presenting the challenges Icy faces as she confronts her disease. The isolation she experiences is partly a consequence of her unfeeling neighbors, but also partly the result of her own helpless frustration, which often makes her push away people who care for her.

    A burden added to adolescence
    The story is firmly grounded in her youth. Tourette Syndrome must certainly be a concern for any victim, but it is an especially sad obstacle for an adolescent whose budding schoolmates have begun to forge close friendships and discover romance for the first time. Icy’s first boyfriend, known as “Frog Eyes” in his childhood, seems to offer some hope for empathy and companionship. But when he attempts to take sexual advantage of Icy, her body starts jerking and twitching, and he calls her a monster. Perhaps the most moving scene of Icy’s unfulfilled youth occurs when her grandparents, and her friend Ms. Emily, present her with her own telephone number, claiming it is a fitting gift for a teenager. “Can’t any of you see?” Icy responds, horrified. “Who in the great, big world . . . is ever going to call me?”
         Despite her affliction though, Icy doesn’t make things easier for herself. Rubio should be credited for portraying an individual whose human complications make her more than a simple victim. Icy is suspicious of any affection, and she is repulsed by many of the other residents at the Bluegrass State Hospital. Ms. Emily, an extremely overweight and lonely neighbor from Poplar Holler, befriends her. But though Icy often relies on her for comfort and advice, Icy also makes it clear that she does not believe in her own predestined solitude. Icy tries to ignore the possibility that her disease may have any long-term effect; she would like to move beyond the sphere of others, whom she judges harshly. Her attitude rings, in fact, of a kind of superiority that many adolescents might be susceptible to, Tourette Syndrome or no Tourette Syndrome.

    Catharsis depicted with sizzling prose
    At an unforgettable religious revival, though, Icy finally finds a catharsis that seems much more genuine than any she has thus far experienced. The prose sizzles as Brother Thomas’ voice, charged with conviction, evokes the crowds to call out their praise and sing at their top of their voices to the Lord. This scene marks the entrance to the novel’s climax where Icy reveals an extraordinary singing voice and is invited by five church choir groups to sing at the Fourth of July ceremonies. Overwhelmed by the sudden involvement, she accepts every invitation. But what has the potential to turn into a disaster proves to be Icy’s greatest success and, also, a fitting conclusion to the novel.
         As Icy wanders around the meadows surrounding her grandparents’ home, Rubio likewise lingers in her descriptions of flowers and lakes, painting a vivid portrait of rural Kentucky. And in Mrs. Stilton, Icy’s bitter fourth-grade teacher who comes armed with a wrist-swatting paddle, we find as well-drawn a villainess as any that has found its way onto the page in recent years. The rich details and characters carry us eagerly from one page to another, proving that the tale of a young woman with Tourette Syndrome can be simultaneously painstaking and entertaining.
         Gwyn Hyman Rubio has turned out to be a real winner of a debut novelist, and she is a welcome addition to the most talented voices in contemporary literature.

    Joe Kovacs is press relations coordinator for NAFSA: Association of International Educators in Washington, DC. He is currently at work on his first novel, entitled The Bronx Buddha.