J.M. Frey’s TRIPTYCH does the nearly impossible — it’s a love story with remarkable depth, it’s a debut novel written with the assurance of a master, and it describes humanity in three different ways: from the perspective of scientist heroine Gwen Pierson, from the perspective of engineer hero Dr. Basil Grey, and from the perspective of the alien Kalp — and all work. Very well.
It’s easiest to describe Kalp, who you might want to think of as similar to Valentine Michael Smith in Robert A. Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND — except that he’s an alien, Kalp has many of the same characteristics as RAH’s character. Kalp is smart. He is innocent in a way that’s hard to describe, but easy to spot — and it’s an innocence that treats sex and sexuality in a clean, matter-of-fact way. “We all want sex,” so goes this treatment — “even aliens. So why fight it?”
Kalp is an extremely sympathetic figure; he lost his mates in the scramble to get off-world (a terrible disaster occurred, and only a single spaceship managed to get off-planet before the world was destroyed). As the sole survivor of his marriage, he feels completely adrift; this, perhaps, is why he resonates so strongly to Pierson and Grey when he meets them. See, Kalp is a keen observer and understands that Pierson and Grey have a long-term relationship going on — but he doesn’t see why he can’t be part of that, because he really doesn’t understand why human relationships should always stay “just” as twosomes, because in his own culture, marriages come in threes.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
TRIPTYCH starts off with Kalp dead and Pierson and Grey having gone into the past to find out why he’s been killed. Time travel is only one of the conceits, here; that we’re back in time into the early 1980s means that Pierson and Grey feel nearly as alien compared to the humans they meet back then as Kalp feels in 2011-2. And mostly, the time travel tells them much more about themselves than they’d ever expected, even though it does give them an answer as to who killed Kalp, and why.
The next section is Kalp’s section in his own point of view. We see him trying to assimilate into our culture. We see him live in an “alien barracks,’ and the two heroes, Pierson and Grey, taking him out of there. We see him getting to know Pierson and Grey as people, and falling for them both as they also fall for him — and there are logical reasons as to why this happens. It’s not all just proximity, or Kalp needing tenderness and caring after his mates had died; it’s that Pierson and Grey are the right people for him, just as he was perhaps the only person who could actually add something to their twosome rather than take it away. And we see his successful acclimation to human society, only to have it all end tragically and senselessly — but why?
Well, the third and final part of the book answers that. It seems we haven’t outgrown our xenophobia, and some on Earth could not handle these triple marriages at all. (See, Kalp, Pierson and Grey were only the first. They were not the last.) So their typical reactions, while shocking and senseless, go hand in hand with our history — but can we rise above this? And if so, what kind of people will we become? And on a more personal level, how can Grey and Pierson go back to being “merely” a couple again?
Truly, TRIPTYCH is a work of art in the best of senses — you’ll get more and more out of it the longer you read it. It is deeply personal — what’s more personal than who we love and why? — it’s psychological, in that what makes a person “human” is definitely one of the biggest parts of the subtext. It seems like something that could actually happen — alien refugees being taken in, then people like Grey and Pierson working with them at a place like Frey’s described “Institute” — and even the love and sexual relationships being depicted are something that is sensible and seem right in context rather than being thrown in there for the shock value.
In fact, one of the reasons TRIPTYCH is one of the best novels of 2011 is precisely because it doesn’t do that — Kalp’s reactions are priceless, and they grow out of his character. He does not make decisions merely for the Hell of it; instead, he clearly reasons as to why he’s going to do something, and like a child — or like Valentine Michael Smith — Kalp doesn’t try to suppress his basic reactions. So everything seems logical, but there is real love there — something to be cherished and protected. Which is why it’s still tragic in the extreme after Kalp is killed; though the reader knows that Kalp isn’t going to survive from the beginning, seeing who Kalp is and why he matters so much, then sensing just a little of what Pierson and Grey are going through at the novel’s start comes down like a hammer.
In short, Ms. Frey is a writer who’s well worth watching; in TRIPTYCH, she’s managed to write a novel that’s both expressive and interesting, something that can be appreciated on many different levels, as her debut novel.
Grade: A-plus. (In other words — read this novel. Read this novel now. You’ll be glad you did.)
– reviewed by Barb