Rachel Elliott’s debut novel was a riotous treat, full of hapless, helpless characters and comically tragic circumstances. Miriam, a woman subjected to untenable brutality from her mentally ill mother, is embodied fear and repression. Suspecting that she “wears her reticence like a high-visibility jacket”, she never speaks above a whisper and refuses to leave her house for three years.
“[H]er default personality setting is melancholy infused with kindness, which sounds like a room spray for introverts.”
Ralph, on the other hand, is in the world but not necessarily of the world. He is “perpetually bewildered” and seems to lack any sense of intention or agency when it comes to his life. When Miriam first meets Ralph, he is a disheveled mess who has just bolted from his life to hide in the woods, yet Miriam “know[s] just from looking at him that no degree of unkemptness will ever destroy his neatness, because it burns inside him, relentless.”
Ralph and Miriam, two total strangers who are both bystanders in their own lives, suddenly form a friendship in a time of great transformation and discovery. Both are lovers of order – Ralph feels compelled to “tidy up” the abandoned shack in the woods that he stumbles across; Miriam obsessively cleans her home and makes lists.
“But lists are good, remember? You can add things and take them away. Adding makes you feel like a person with clear intentions, subtracting feels like a small victory.”
What happens to each of them over the course of the novel is unpredictable and surprisingly comedic given the over-arching darkness of their lives, their hurts, and their vulnerabilities.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from start to finish. I couldn’t help but snicker and snort at some of the ridiculous plot twists, while grinning ear to ear at Elliott’s agility with clever turns of phrase (see Miriam’s description of watching someone casually strike up a conversation as a “conversational pickpocket. It’s dialogical pilferage.”) While I occasionally felt that her characters were a little bit one-dimensional, that dimension was so wittily turned out that the overall effect was positive. In the end, Elliott chose to paint bleakness with a bright-colored brush, bringing hilarity to sad circumstances. Perhaps she knows, like one of her characters, that “it’s sorrow that has the allure, the magnetism.”