Rachel Elliott’s Whispers Through a Megaphone was longlisted for 2016’s Baileys Women’s Prize, won, of course, by Lisa McInerney with her novel The Glorious Heresies. I am not familiar with the latter, although it does have a place on my enormous to-read list, but I can wholeheartedly say that Elliott’s debut novel is very good indeed. Laurie Penny has deemed it ‘a book with a big, beating heart’, and the word ‘charming’ is repeated in a lot of the reviews on the press release.
There are two protagonists in Whispers Through a Megaphone – thirty-five year old Miriam Delaney, and Ralph Swoon, a psychotherapist with twin teenage sons. When the novel opens, it has been three years since Miriam last left her house:
‘No, that’s not quite true. She has stepped into the back garden to feed the koi carp, stepped into the porch to collect the milk and leave a bin bag for her neighbour to place at the end of the drive. But step out into the street? No chance.’
Tossing a coin essentially hands Miriam back her freedom: ‘Heads I could be part of the world, tails I’ll always be outside it’. Her theme song of sorts is Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’: ‘It’s the soundtrack to a future that feels terrifying, exciting, possible, impossible’. When she does make it out of the house, Elliott wonderfully describes her inner world: ‘It is unusual for Miriam to be gleeful like this, because her default personality setting is melancholy infused with kindness, which sounds like a room spray for introverts’.
Ralph receives the curveball on his birthday, of all days, that his wife no longer loves him. He decides to move out without informing her, taking what little he needs, and setting up camp in an abandoned shed in the woods. He adopts a stray cat, names it Treacle, and has companionable suppers with her. One evening, quite soon into his stay, Miriam comes across him, running, as she does, into the woods in fright: ‘But she has found him. Or maybe he has found her. They haven’t found each other, not yet’. The wholly platonic relationship between the pair which follows is rather heartwarming; it’s rather refreshing to read a novel in which a romance is not automatically sparked under such circumstances.
Throughout the novel, flashbacks are given to Miriam’s childhood, lived with her rather cruel mother, Frances. She is not bullied much at school; rather, she ‘was only visible when the children were bored’. She has been told that her father had an aneurysm and died when she was just one, whilst he was outside pegging up various items of laundry. Her mother’s erratic behaviour is a staple of her girlhood, and even begins a clandestine relationship with Miriam’s married headmaster. Told to be quiet so often in childhood, Miriam’s voice has been damaged; she can only communicate in whispers, which many of the other characters attribute to her contracting severe laryngitis.
Elliott has a witty, comical way of writing, and her descriptions particularly are rendered quite original in this manner: ‘washing up water that was supposed to smell of lavender and lemon, but actually smelt like the passageway between Asda and the car park’, and, of Ralph, ‘saying “blow me” was something he had inherited from his father, along with narrow shoulders and a pert little bottom’.
Whispers Through a Megaphone is about people in all of their many horrid, wonderful forms. It is an engaging and surprising read, in which each and every character who peppers the pages has his or her own personal crisis to deal with; Ralph’s sons, for instance – angry Arthur, and Stanley, who is trying to keep his relationship with the serious Canadian Joe under wraps. The relationships which Elliott builds are complex, but one gets a feel for them almost as soon as each character is introduced, or each situation shifts. The structure, in which alternate chapters follow Miriam and Ralph, works wonderfully. Whispers Through a Megaphone is full of depth; it is essentially about a whole cast of characters discovering themselves, and reclaiming some part of their past, or their future. A lovely uplifting read, which is perfect for every season.